MF Global filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Monday after credit downgrades led to margin calls on some of the $6.3 billion in Eurozone sovereign debt the bank held. The position was five-times MF Global's equity.
Although the major U.S. banks have less exposure relative to available capital, their many tendrils in Europe - particularly to European banks - will inevitably drag them into any financial meltdown in the Eurozone.
Even the U.S. banks' estimated direct exposure to the troubled European nations of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (PIIGS) is disturbingly high - equal to nearly 5% of total U.S. banking assets, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
And according to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), U.S. banks actually increased their exposure to PIIGS debt by 20% over the first six months of 2011.
But the greatest risk is the multiple links most large U.S. banks have to their European counterparts - many of which hold a great deal of PIIGS debt.
"Given that U.S. banks have an estimated loan exposure to German and Frenchbanks in excess of $1.2 trillion and direct exposure to the PIIGS valued at $641billion, a collapse of a major European bank could produce similar problems inU.S. institutions," a CRS research report said earlier this month.
Of course, the major banks say their exposure to the Eurozone debt crisis is much lower because they've bought credit-default swaps (CDS) to hedge their positions. Credit-default swaps are essentially insurance policies that pay off in the event of a default.
Unfortunately, this same strategy was one of the root causes of the 2008 financial crisis involving American International Group (NYSE: AIG) and Lehman Bros.
"Risk isn't going to evaporate through these trades," Frederick Cannon, director of research at investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., told Bloomberg News. "The big problem with all these gross exposures is counterparty risk. When the CDS is triggered due to default, will those counterparties be standing? If everybody is buying from each other, who's ultimately going to pay for the losses?"