Warning: Credit Default Swaps May Not Work As Advertised (And That’s Even When They Do Work)

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Satyajit Das has a very useful post, “The Credit Default Swap (“CDS”) Market – Will It Unravel?,” in which he describes some of the ways that CDS may fail to perform as expected in real world situations, ie, when companies start getting in trouble. While this work isn’t quite at the Tanta Uber-Nerd level of detail, it does get more granular than most discussions, which I thought was useful.

Two aspects of Das’ article merit mention. First, he goes through what most may find a surprisingly long list of various ways CDS might not fully cover the risks they are supposed to guarantee even before getting to the big bugaboo of counterparty failure. One case that Das has mentioned elsewhere is that in the one big test of the CDS market to date, Delphi. CDS protection buyers got 37 cents on the dollar when the recovery value on the senior bonds was set by Fitch at 1-10%, meaning the fall in the value of the credit was 90+ cents per dollar, yet the CDS holder got only about 40% of that. That’s a considerable shortfall.

Second, he alludes to rather than spells out the coming-to-a-courtroom-near-you battles over defaulting LBO debt. In this world of covenant lite deals, creditors lack the big stick they had to force either bankruptcy or a restructuring of the debt, namely, if you breached the covenants, the lender could accelerate (demand payment of) the debt. Now if borrowers don’t pay, creditors don’t seem to have much (any?) leverage.

How does this affect CDS? Per Das, for many CDS, non-payment is NOT an event of default. So what good is insurance if it doesn’t cover the most likely outcome for the debt in question? This will make for some interesting theater.

This post also provides some third party estimates of possible losses from CDS counterparty failures. From Das:

The CDS contract and the entire Structured Credit Market originally was predicated on hedging of credit risk. Over time the market changed focus – in Mae West’s words: “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” The ability to short credit, leverage positions and trade credit unrestricted by the size of the underlying debt market have become the dominant drivers of growth in the market for these instruments…

Banks have used CDS contracts extensively to hedge credit risk on bonds and loans. The key issue is will the contracts protect the banks from the underlying credit risk being hedged. As Mae West noted: “An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.” Documentation and counterparty risk means that the market may not function as participants and regulators hope if actual defaults occur.

CDS documentation is highly standardised to facilitate trading. It generally does not exactly match the terms of the underlying risk being hedged. CDS contracts are technically complex in relation to the identity of the entity being hedged, the events that are covered and how the CDS contract is to be settled. This means that the hedge may not provide the protection sought. In fairness, all financial hedges display some degree of mismatch or “basis” risk.

The CDS contract is triggered by a “credit event”, broadly default by the reference entity. The buyer of protection is not protected against “all” defaults. They are only protected against defaults on a specified set of obligations in certain currencies. It is possible that there is a loan default but technical difficulties may make it difficult to trigger the CDS hedging that loan. Some credit events like “restructuring” are complex. There are different versions – R (restructuring); NR (no restructuring); MR (modified restructuring); MMR (modified modified restructuring). Different contracts use different versions.

“PAI” (publicly available information) must generally be used to trigger the CDS contract. Recent credit events have been straightforward Chapter 11 filings and bankruptcy. For other credit events (failure to pay or restructuring), there may be problems in establishing that the credit event took place.

This has a systemic dimension. A CDS protection buyer may have to put the reference entity into bankruptcy or Chapter 11 in order to be able to settle the contract. A study by academics Henry Hu and Bernard Black (from the University of Texas) concludes that CDS contracts may create incentives for creditors to push troubled companies into bankruptcy. This may exacerbate losses in case of defaults.

In case of default, the protection buyer in CDS must deliver a defaulted bond or loan – the deliverable obligation – to the protection seller in return for receiving the face value of the delivered item (known as physical settlement). When Delphi defaulted, the volume of CDS outstanding was estimated at US$28 billion against US$5.2 billion of bonds and loans (not all of qualified for delivery). On actively traded names CDS volumes are substantially greater than outstanding debt making it difficult to settle contracts.

Shortage of deliverable items and practical restrictions on settling CDS contracts has forced the use of “protocols” – where any two counterparties, by mutual consent, substitute cash settlement for physical delivery. In cash settlement, the seller of protection makes a payment to the buyer of protection. The payment is intended to cover the loss suffered by the protection buyer based on the market price of defaulted bonds established through a so-called “auction system”. The auction is designed to be robust and free of the risk of manipulation.

In Delphi, the protocol resulted in a settlement price of 63.38% (the market estimate of recovery by the lender). The protection buyer received 36.62% (100% – 63.38%) or US$3.662 million per US$10 million CDS contract. Fitch Ratings assigned a R6 recovery rating to Delphi’s senior unsecured obligation equating to a 0-10% recovery band ….

The settlement mechanics may cause problems even where there is no default. One company refinanced its debt using commercial mortgage backed securities (“CMBS”). The company was downgraded by rating agencies. A shortage of deliverable obligations (the company used the funds from the CMBS to repay its bond and loans) meant that the CDS fee for the company fell sharply (indicative of an improvement in credit quality). This resulted in mark-to-market losses for bemused hedgers. This is known in the trade as an “orphaned CDS”.

In the case of actual defaults the CDS market may provide significant employment to a whole galaxy of lawyers trying to figure out whether and how the contract should work…

CDS contracts substitute the risk of the protection seller for the risk of the loan or bond being hedged. If the seller of protection is unable to perform then the buyer obtains no protection.

Currently, a significant proportion of protection sellers is financial guarantors (monoline insurers) and hedge funds. Concerns about the credit standing of monolines are well documented….

For hedge funds, the CDS is marked-to-market daily and any gain or loss is covered by collateral (cash or high quality securities) to minimise performance risk. If there is a failure to meet a margin call then the position must be closed out and the collateral applied against the loss. In practice, banks may not be willing or able to close out positions where collateral isn’t posted.

ACA Financial Guaranty sold protection totaling US$69 billion while having capital resources of around US$425 million. When ACA was downgraded below “A” credit rating, it was required to post collateral of around US$ 1.7 billion. ACA was unable to meet this requirement. The banks have agreed to a “forbearance agreement” whereby the buyer of protection waived the right to collateral temporarily. ACA subsequently has been downgraded to “CCC” reducing the value of the CDS contract and the protection offered. The problems at ACA are not unique.

A critical element is the level of over-collateralisation. The buyer of protection will want an initial margin to cover the risk of a change in the value of the contract and the failure by the seller of protection to meet a margin call. The seller of protection wants to increase leverage by reducing the amount of cash it must post as initial margin. It is possible that the level of initial collateral may prove be too low. Collateral models use historical volatility and correlation that may underestimate the risk. The entire process also assumes liquidity in the underlying CDS market that may be absent in a crisis.

CDS contracts entail significant operational risks. Delays in documenting CDS contracts forced regulators to step in requiring banks to confirm trades more promptly. Where collateral is used, there are additional challenges of the accuracy of mark-to-market of CDS and monitoring of collateral.

If the CDS contracts fail then “hedged” banks are exposed to losses on the underlying credit risk. Recently, one analyst suggested that losses from failure of CDS protection sellers to perform could total between US$33 billion and US$158 billion [Andrea Cicione “Counterparty Risk: A Growing Cause of Concern” (25 January 2008) Credit Portfolio Strategy – BNP Paribas Corporate & Investment Banking]. This compares to the around US$110 billion that banks have written off to date. While it may be unlikely that the CDS market will fail entirely it is possible that losses on the hedges will add to the losses that the banks have already incurred.

The CDS market entails complex chains of risk. This is similar to the re-insurance chains that proved so problematic in the case of Lloyds. The CDS markets have certain similarities with the reinsurance markets. The CDS fees like the reinsurance premiums are received up front. In both cases the risks are both potentially significant and “long tail” – they do not emerge immediately and may take some time to be fully quantified. As in the re-insurance market, the long chain of CDS contracts may create unknown concentration risks. Defaults may quickly cause the financial system to become gridlocked as uncertainty about counterparty risks restricts normal trading.

The impact of a bankruptcy filing by Bear Stearns on the OTC Derivatives market, including the CDS, was probably one of the factors that influenced the Federal Reserve and US Treasury’s decision to support the rescue of the investment bank. Barclays Capital recently estimated that the failure of a dealer with $2 trillion in CDS contracts outstanding could potentially lead to losses of between $36 billion and $47 billion for counterparties. This underlines the potential concentration risks that are present.

Over the last year, securitisation and the CDO (collateralised debt obligation) market have become dysfunctional. As the credit crisis deepens, the risk of actual defaults becomes real. Analysts expect the level of defaults to increase. The CDS market is about to be tested.

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  1. David Merkel

    For those that are familiar with the CDS market, this is old news. Good summary piece on the vagaries of the market, though.

  2. Lune

    Given how lousy much of these contracts will look when they’re examined in court (not just in overall recoverability, but in the number of loopholes, ambiguities, imprecise definitions, etc.), I’m surprised more CDS buyers/sellers aren’t in support of standardizing the contracts and shifting them to a regulated exchange. Compare CDS contracts, which even experienced securities lawyers will have trouble interpreting, to options, which even retail investors can understand.

    In addition, the fat fees made by the i-bank middlemen in an OTC market would be reduced with an exchange.

    So why are CDS users so against putting their trades on an exchange?

  3. Sitting-Bull

    The whole CDS is a sucker market. If there will be one great default, you’ll see if the few counterparts are capable of paying billions of dollars. It’s like 100.000 homeowners insured their homes against fire at one company and all of them get burned at once. Would you bet that you get something back, even pennies on the Dollar? Think about it.

  4. Ginger Yellow

    “I’m surprised more CDS buyers/sellers aren’t in support of standardizing the contracts and shifting them to a regulated exchange. “

    One of the big problems with standardisation is that what works as a credit event for one type of debt doesn’t necessarily work for another, and also banks have different preferences for payouts than monolines. There are standardised templates out there for the major types of CDS, but there’s always going to be a bespoke element in some asset classes. And there’s also an element of self interest – the more opaque a market is, the easier it is (in principle, anyway) to arbitrage.

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