Demonstrators protesting layoffs at Spanish bank Banesto rally in front of a Banesto branch in Madrid, June 8, 2012.
The euro area faces a major economic crisis, most likely a series of rolling, country-specific problems involving some combination of failing banks and sovereigns that can't pay their debts in full.
This will culminate in systemwide stress, emergency liquidity loans from the European Central Bank and politicians from all the countries involved increasingly at one another's throats.
Even the optimists now say openly that Europe will only solve its problems when the alternatives look sufficiently bleak and time has run out. Less optimistic people increasingly think that the euro area will break up because all the proposed solutions are pie-in-the-sky. If the latter view is right -- or even if concern about dissolution grows in coming months -- markets, investors, regulators and governments need to worry not just about interest-rate risk and credit risk, but also dissolution risk.
What's more, they also need to worry a great deal about what the repricing of risk will do to the world's thinly capitalized and highly leveraged megabanks. Officials, unfortunately, appear not to have thought about this at all; the Group of 20 meeting and communiqué last week exuded complacency and neglect.
Very few people seem to have gotten their heads around dissolution risk. Here's what it means: If you have a contract that requires you to be paid in euros and the euro no longer exists, what you will receive is unclear.
As a warm-up, consider first a simple contract. Let's say you have lent 1 million euros to a German bank, payable three months from now. If the euro suddenly ceases to exist and all countries revert to their original currencies, then you would probably receive payment in deutsche marks. You might be fine with this -- and congratulate yourself on not lending to an Italian bank, which is now paying off in lira.
But what would the exchange rate be between new deutsche marks and euros? How would this affect the purchasing power of the loan repayment? More worrisome, what if Germany has gone back on the deutsche mark but the euro still exists -- issued by more inflation-inclined countries? Presumably you would be offered payment in the rapidly depreciating euro. If you contested such a repayment, the litigation could drag on for years.
What if you lent to that German bank not in Frankfurt but in London? Would it matter if you lent to a branch (part of the parent) or a subsidiary (more clearly a British legal entity)? How would the British courts assess your claim to be repaid in relatively appreciated deutsche marks, rather than ever-less- appealing euros? With the euro depreciating further, should you wait to see what the courts decide? Or should you settle quickly in hope of recovering half of what you originally expected?
What if you lent to the German bank in New York, but the transaction was run through an offshore subsidiary, for example in the Cayman Islands? Global banks are extremely complex in terms of the legal entities that overlap with business units. Do you really know which legal jurisdiction would cover all aspects of your transaction in the currency formerly known as the euro?
Moving from relatively simple contracts to the complex world of derivatives, what would happen to the huge euro- denominated interest-rate swap market if euro dissolution is a real possibility? I've talked to various experts and heard a variety of fascinating opinions, but no one really knows.
There is a lot of risk that isn't being priced, including in so-called safe haven assets. Anything denominated in euros is subject to complex, hard-to-value dissolution risk. The credit risk of German sovereign debt may be unchanged, but what is a German government bond worth if the euro is seriously on the rocks?
Personally, I'm most worried about the balance sheets of the really big banks. For example, in recently released highlights from its so-called living will, JPMorgan Chase & Co. revealed that $50 billion in losses could hypothetically bring down the bank. (All big banks must provide their regulators with a living will to show how they could be shut down in an orderly fashion if near default.)
JPMorgan's total balance sheet is valued, under U.S. accounting standards, at about $2.3 trillion. But US rules allow a more generous netting of derivatives -- offsetting long with short positions between the same counterparties -- than European banks are allowed. The problem is that the netting effect can be overstated because derivatives contracts often don't offset each other precisely. Worse, when traders smell trouble at a bank that has taken on too much risk, they tend to close out their derivatives positions quickly, leaving supposedly netted contracts exposed.
People with experience regulating or analyzing financially distressed institutions greatly prefer to measure potential losses with the European approach, in which netting is allowed only when contracts expressly incorporate settlement on a net basis under all circumstances.
When one bank defaults and its derivatives counterpart does not, the failing bank must pay many contracts at once. The counterpart, however, wouldn't provide a matching acceleration in its payments, which would be owed under the originally agreed schedule. This discrepancy could cause a "run" on a highly leveraged bank as counterparties attempt to close out positions with suspect banks while they can. The point is that the netting shown on a bank balance sheet can paper over this dynamic. And that means the JPMorgan living will vastly understates the potential danger.
According to my calculations with John Parsons, a senior lecturer at MIT and a derivatives expert, JPMorgan's balance sheet using the European method isn't $2.3 trillion but closer to $4 trillion. That would make it the largest bank in the world.
What are the odds that JPMorgan would lose no more than $50 billion on assets of $4 trillion, much of which is complex derivatives, in a euro-area breakup, an event that would easily be the biggest financial crisis in world history?
A few officials see the storm coming. The Swiss National Bank should be commended for putting renewed pressure on Credit Suisse to increase its capital levels by suspending dividends. The Bank of England has set up emergency liquidity facilities, and continues to press for more bank capital, although it could do more.
The Federal Reserve should apply the same approach to big US banks, with an emergency and across-the-board suspension of dividend payments, but it won't. The Fed is convinced that its recent stress tests show US banks have enough capital even though these tests didn't model serious euro dissolution risk and the effect on global derivatives markets.
The striking thing about JPMorgan's recent London-based proprietary trading losses is not the amount per se. If the world's largest bank can lose $2 billion to $3 billion in a relatively calm quarter through incompetence and neglect on the fringes of its operations, how much does it stand to lose when markets really turn nasty across a much broader range of its activities? And how might that harm the US economic recovery?
Simon Johnson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management as well as a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, is a co-author of "White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You." The opinions expressed are his own.