June 20, 2014 7:48 pm

Middle East: Falling to pieces

It is imperative that rivals unite in the face of an Isis threat. Failure to do so could spell the end of Iraq

An image grab taken from a propaganda video uploaded on June 8, 2014, by the jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) allegedly shows ISIL militants driving in vehicles near the central Iraqi city of Tikrit. Militants battled Iraqi security forces in Tikrit on June 11, 2014, after jihadists seized a swathe of the north, including second city Mosul, officials said. Heavy clashes rocked the north of Tikrit, hometown of now executed dictator Saddam Hussein, a provincial councillor said. AFP PHOTO / HO / ISIL == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / ISIL" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ===-/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

The surge of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the group known as Isis, poses a threat to all countries in the Middle East as well as to western interests. The Sunni jihadi group, whose rapid takeover of swaths of northwestern Iraq could lead to all-out civil war, considers not only Shia Muslims as its enemy

Isis’s aim is to dismantle existing borders among Sunni states and demolish prevailing power structures. If left unchecked and with territory under its control, its agenda might well expand to include global violent jihad.

In the twisted world of Isis, no one winsnot the Shia clerical regime in Tehran nor the Sunni theocracy in Saudi Arabia. Both have an interest in ridding the region of the new wave of jihadi extremism. But, this being the Middle East, having a common enemy is not sufficient to establish unity of purpose.

It was in Iraq just over a decade ago that the balance of power in the region was radically altered. The shift unleashed a power struggle that has taken on Sunni-Shia sectarian overtones and has been played out across the Middle East, from Syria to Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq removed a Sunni-dominated regime that was, through elections, replaced with a government led by the Shia majority.

Since then, Iraq has been a battleground for regional score-settling, with Gulf monarchies supporting Sunni tribes and parties and Iran bolstering Shia groups. The power struggle has shifted to Syria over the past three years with Iran and the Gulf powers backing opposing sides of a civil war.

Where the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran are allied and opposed on the four major issues: Isis, Iran's nuclear programme and the futures of Syria and Iraq

But while attention was focused on Syria, tensions were simmering in Iraq. Since the US troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, has pursued policies that have further alienated the Sunni minority, fuelling widespread resentment of the central government and its military institutions that has facilitated the Isis offensive.

Former Ba’athists who never came to terms with the new political order in Iraq have been staging a comeback, fighting alongside Isis.

Ironically, perhaps, Iran and the US, estranged since the Islamic revolution in 1979, have good reason to co-operate in Iraq today. But co-operation is not without risks. The US is reluctant to hand any leverage to Iran during the critical negotiations under way over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

The US objective of a more balanced power- sharing agreement in Iraq is also at odds with the Iranian interest for Shia dominance. US-Iranian co-operation on Iraq is also certain to inflame Saudi passions and confirm to a suspicious Riyadh that Washington is on the way to abandoning its traditional Gulf allies.

In Riyadh and other Gulf capitals, concern about Isis is mitigated by the prospect of dealing a rare setback to the Shia-led government in Baghdad, and by extension Iran. Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has become fixated on checking Iranian influence in the Arab world.

In this page, the Financial Times attempts to explain, through maps and graphics, the regional dynamics that complicate efforts to preserve Iraq as a united nation. More than at any time in the past decade, Iraq confronts the danger of dismemberment into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish entities, a prospect that would have huge ramifications across the Middle East.

Iran, the leading Shia power, is probably the most important player in Iraq. It wants a stable Iraq with the Shia majority as the dominant political power. Iran is keen to co-operate with the US against Isis in Iraq and has the influence to secure an unstated US goal: a new government that would no longer be led by Nouri al-Maliki.

The US and Iran, however, back opposite sides in Syria. The same security forces that assist Iran’s Shia groups have been bolstering Bashar al-Assad, while the US has supported moderate rebels.

The US is also concerned Iran could use their co-operation as a bargaining chip in nuclear negotiations and that even the appearance of working with Iran will heighten tensions with Sunni Gulf Arab regimes.

Saudi Arabia is the big Sunni power in the Middle East. But the Iraq conflict has broken out at a time when its long-established strategic alliance with the US is under strain. For Saudi Arabia, Iraq is a battleground for its cold war with Iran. In recent years, the Saudis have ignored repeated US pleas to help stabilise Iraq by launching a dialogue with Mr Maliki. They have shunned the prime minister and sought to prop up Iraq’s Sunni tribes and political parties.

Donors. Riyadh has also been a big backer of Syria’s rebels, some of whom might have joined Isis. The Sunni Gulf monarchies appear to be taking some pleasure in Mr Maliki’s predicament today, even if Isis’s expansion could pose a threat to their own rule.

Syria’s conflict is closely intertwined with the Iraq crisis. Isis has been the most ferocious of the disparate groups in the largely Sunni rebel movement that has been trying to unseat Mr Assad. It is now in control of parts of the north and east of Syria.

While Isis is designated as a terrorist organisation in the US, the more moderate anti-Assad rebels are backed by Washington. Mr Assad and the US therefore appear to be on the same side when it comes to Isis.

But not completely. Complicating the issue are the suspicious ties between Mr Assad and Isis. The jihadi group is believed by western intelligence to be infiltrated by the Assad regime, whose objective is to portray the rebels as Sunni extremists determined to oust a minority Alawite regime.

Turkey has much at stake in Iraq, including growing commercial interests, particularly in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north. It shares with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies the concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme. And it has co-operated with the monarchies and the US in Syria, where it has been a leading opponent of Mr Assad.

But Turkey has been accused of turning a blind eye to the flood of foreign fighters crossing into Syria to join the rebellion, including jihadi groups such as Isis.

Ankara’s paramount concern is the fate of Iraq’s Kurds, who have been trying to carve out self-government areas in Syria as well. Turkey’s worry is that separatist sentiment could spread to its own Kurdish minority.

The jihadi networks that fund Isis are assumed to include private Saudi.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014.

The Bear's Lair: Systemic risk is worse now than in 2008

by Martin Hutchinson

June 16, 2014

Since the crash of 2008, huge attention has been paid by regulators to systemic risk, the risk that some event will cause the crash of the entire banking system, not just of an individual bank. Tens of thousands of pages of financial regulations have been written, and almost as many thousands of speeches have been bloviated, about how we now understand the dangers of “too big to fail” and therefore a crash such as occurred in 2008 can never happen again.

Needless to say this is nonsense; systemic risk is worse now than it was in 2008. What's more, the next crash will almost certainly be considerably nastier than the last one.

The main issue addressed by legislation has beentoo big to fail,” the idea that some banks are so large that their failure would cause a catastrophic economic collapse and hence they must be propped up by taxpayers. It will not surprise you to learn that I don't regard this as the central problem.

Most of the risks in the banking system today are present in a wide range of institutions, all of which are highly interconnected and getting more so. Hence a failure in a medium-sized institution, if sufficiently connected to the system as a whole, could well have systemic implications. At the same time, pretty well all banks use similar (and spurious) risk-management systems, while leverage—both open and more dangerously hidden—is high throughout the system

Foolish monetary policy is foolish for all, and if a technological disaster occurs, it is likely to affect software used by a substantial faction of the banking system as a whole. There are a number of good reasons to break up the banking behemoths, but breaking them up on its own would not solve the systemic risk problem.

Systemic risk has been exacerbated by modern finance for a number of reasons. The system's interconnectedness is one such reason, because of the cat's cradle of derivatives contracts totaling some $710 trillion nominal amount (per BIS figures for December 2013) that stretch between different institutions worldwide.

Some of these contracts such as the $584 trillion of interest-rate swaps are not especially risky (except to the extent that traders have been gambling egregiously on the market's direction). However, other derivatives, such as the $21 trillion of credit-default swaps (CDS) and options thereon, have potential risk almost as great as their nominal amount. What's more, there are $25 trillion of “unallocatedcontracts. My sleep is highly troubled by the thought of 150% of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in contracts which the regulators can't define!

The problem is made worse by the illiquidity of many of these instruments. Any kind of exotic derivative with a long-term maturity is likely to trade very seldom indeed once the initial flush of creation has worn off. 

These risks have been alleviated by trading standard contracts on exchanges. But even if banks' risk management were good, failure of a major counterparty or, heaven help us, of an exchange, would cause systemic havoc because of its interconnectedness.

Another systemic risk worsened by modern finance is that of inadequate risk management. This has in no way been improved by the 2008 crash. More than three years after the crash (and nearly two years after Kevin Dowd and I had anatomized its risk management failures in “Alchemists of Loss”), J.P. Morgan was still using a variation on Value-at-Risk to manage its index CDS positions in the London Whale disaster. Morgan survived that one, but there seems no reason from a risk-management perspective why the Whale's loss should not have been $100 billion just as easily as $2 billion—which Morgan would not have survived

Regulators have done nothing to solve this problem. Indeed, the new Basel III rules continue to allow the largest banks to design their own risk-management systems, surely a recipe for disaster.

You may feel that risk management, at least, is a problem exacerbated by the size of the too-big-to-fail banks. However, this is not entirely so. Each bank will commit its own trading disasters, so that a reversion to smaller banks would equally revert to smaller but more frequent trading disasters, surely an improvement (and the London Whale's successors would be less likely to get megalomania and attempt to control an entire market). On the other hand, if the market as a whole does things not contemplated by the risk-management systemGoldman Sachs' David Viniar's25-standard deviation moves, several days in a row” as in 2007—then since all banks use risk-management systems with similar flaws, they are all likely to break down at once, producing systemic collapse. As I shall explain below, I expect the next market collapse to take place in pretty well all assets simultaneously, with nowhere to hide. Hence a collapse in the global banking system's risk management, affecting most assets, will cause losses to pretty well all significant banks. No amount of regulation will sort that one out.

Modern finance has also made systemic risk worse through its incomprehensibility, opacity and speed. Neither the traders nor the “quantsdesigning new second- and third-order derivative contracts have any idea how those contracts would behave in a crisis, because they have existed through at most one crisis, and their behavior is both leveraged to and separated from the behavior of the underlying asset or pool of assets. Banks do not know their counterparties' risks, so cannot assess the solidity of the institution with which they are dealing. And in “fast-tradingareas, computers carry out trading algorithms at blistering speed, thus producing unexpectedflash crashes” in which liquidity disappears and prices jump uncontrollably.

The opacity of banks' operations is made worse by “mark-to-marketaccounting, which foolishly causes banks to report large profits as their operations deteriorate, the credit quality of their liabilities deteriorates and their value of those liabilities declines. This makes the banks' actual operating results in a downturn wholly incomprehensible to investors.

The leverage problem has not gone away, in spite of all the attempts since 2008 to control it. Furthermore, much of the financial system's risk has been sidelined into non-bank institutions such as money-market funds, securitization vehicles, asset backed commercial paper vehicles and, especially, mortgage REITs, which have grown enormously since 2008. These vehicles are less regulated than banks themselves, and where the regulators have tried to control them, they have got it wrong. For example, huge efforts have been made, backed by the banking lobby, to mess up the money market fund industry, which has only ever had one loss, and that for less than 1% of the value of the fund. Conversely, the gigantic interest-rate risks of the mortgage REITs, which buy long-term mortgages and finance themselves in the repurchase market, are quite uncontrolled and a major danger to the system.

Let us not forget the role of technology, a substantial and growing contributor to systemic risk. The large banks these days develop very little software of their own, relying instead on packages both large and small from outside suppliers. The “Heartbleed bug of April 2014 showed that even tiny programs such OpenSSL, universally used, can be attacked in ways very difficult to defend against, and that bring vulnerability to the bank's entire system. A malicious hacker somewhere in the vast and expanding Russo-Chinese sphere of influence, or even a domestic teenager, could at any time produce a bug that slipped through the protective systems common to most banks, damaging or even bringing down the system as a whole.

However, the greatest contributor to systemic risk, and the reason why it is worse today than in 2008, is monetary policy. It had been over-expansive since 1995, causing a mortgage finance boom in 2002-06 which was anomalous in that less prosperous areas and poorer people received more new mortgage finance than the rich ones. However, its encouragement to leverage has never been so great as in the period since 2009. Consequently, asset prices have risen worldwide and leverage both open and, more importantly, hidden has correspondingly increased.

In general, very low interest rates encourage risk-taking. Monetary policy makers fantasize that this will produce more entrepreneurs in garages. Actually, banks won't lend to entrepreneurs, so it simply produces more fast-buck artists in sharp suits. The result is more risk. When monetary policy is so extreme for so long, it results in more systemic risk. It's as simple as that.

Precisely what form the crash will take, and when it will come, is still not clear. It's possible that it will be highly inflationary. If the $2.7 trillion of excess reserves in the U.S. banking system starts getting lent out, the inflationary kick will be very rapid indeed. However it's also possible the mountain of malinvestment resulting from the last five years' foolish monetary policy will collapse of its own weight without inflation taking off. Either way, the banking system crash that accompanies the downturn will be more unpleasant than the last one, because the asset price decline that causes it will not simply be confined to housing, but will be more or less universal.

After that, systemic risk may be very much reducedmostly because we won't have much of a banking system left!