We're just getting our heads around "collateralized debt obligations" (CDOs). That's not to say that most of us understand their innermost workings, but we know that they're connected with subprime mortgages and that the connection isn't working out that well.
The latest exports from the Financial Chamber of Horrors are "credit default swaps" (purchased to hedge against CDO losses) and "constant proportion debt obligations" (which package indexes of credit default swaps). The bottom-line number on these little beauties is $45.5 trillion, or about twice the size of the US stock market.
Since the market for the above-mentioned securities is unregulated (think financial Wild West here), the health of said market is difficult to gauge. However, it is believed that the market value of the underlying contracts outstanding far exceeds the $5.7 trillion in corporate bonds for which they were designed as default protection. The Feb. 17th New York Times front-page article by Gretchen Morgenson makes this relatively understandable; the paper edition is available at the Library Station or the Library Center, while the online edition is available to Springfield-Greene County Library cardholders.
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