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When historians write about the current crisis, much of the blame will go to the slump in the housing and mortgage markets, which triggered the losses, layoffs and liquidations sweeping the financial industry.
But credit default swaps -- complex derivatives originally designed to protect banks from deadbeat borrowers -- are adding to the turmoil.
"This was supposedly a way to hedge risk," says Ellen Brown, the author of the book "Web of Debt."
"I'm sure their predictive models were right as far as the risk of the things they were insuring against. But what they didn't factor in was the risk that the sellers of this protection wouldn't pay ... That's what we're seeing now."
Brown is hardly alone in her criticism of the derivatives. Five years ago, billionaire investor Warren Buffett called them a "time bomb" and "financial weapons of mass destruction" and directed the insurance arm of his Berkshire Hathaway Inc (BRKa.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) to exit the business.
"They booked all these derivatives assuming bad things would never happen. It was like writing fire insurance, assuming no one is ever going to have a fire, only now they're turning around and watching as the whole town burns down."
In one notorious case, a small hedge fund agreed to insure UBS AG, the Swiss banking giant, from losses related to defaults on $1.3 billion of subprime mortgages for an annual premium of about $2 million.
The trouble was, the hedge fund set up a subsidiary to stand behind the guarantee -- and capitalized it with just $4.6 million. As long as the loans performed, the fund made a killing, raking in an annualized return of nearly 44 percent.
But in the summer of 2007, as home owners began to default, things got ugly. UBS demanded the hedge fund put up additional collateral. The fund balked. UBS sued.