This informative discussion that sheds further light on the stresses created by credit default swap settlements comes in the current issue of the Institutional Risk Analytics weekly, “In the Fog of Volatility, the Notional Becomes Payable“:
Another example of the ongoing discontinuity in the markets comes in the linkage between the unwind of credit default swap (“CDS”) positions written regarding Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and dollar LIBOR rates in Europe.
The auction process begun by DTCC, by which holders of CDS on bankrupt Lehman Brothers settled in cash via the DTCC’s facility, caused many tongues to wag as to the “net” amount providers of protection must pay to holders of CDS. Several members of the media called last week to ask if Don Donahue, CEO of DTCC, was speaking truth when he said that the net payments on Lehman contracts processed by the DTCC’s warehouse were a mere $6 billion or so.
Of course Don Donahue is providing the straight skinny on the flow of transactions which have actually participated in the DTCC auction. But consider that other than holders of CDX and some holders of single name CDS not offended by the prospect of cash settlement, there remain a large number of total holders of CDS for Lehman who do not wish to take cash settlement and indeed are expecting to receive the underlying bonds.
Now the apparent non-event from the Lehman CDS auction is a source of media frustration. Wasn’t there supposed to be a breakdown in the CDS markets, a dramatic failure event a la Lehman Brothers? But the merchants of doom should take heart.
The bad effect of the CDS market comes not merely from when there is market dysfunction and an individual counterparty fails. That happens often enough, but the prime broker-dealers clean up the mess quietly so as not to roil the markets. Remember, the dealer already owns the counterparty’s collateral through the credit agreement, so there is no point forcing the issue with a messy and noisy bankruptcy. Right? This is why the media rarely hears of fails in CDS.
No, as with the repatriation of the Structured Investment Vehicles onto the balance sheets of C and other money center banks, the true significance of CDS comes when the markets function smoothly, as after a default event like Lehman. The trigger event putting a single name CDS contract in the money results in a liquidity-raising event for the seller of protection, who must fund the purchase of the debt at par less recovery value – whether or not the other party actually owns the debt!
This process of funding the CDS is reportedly a factor behind the high rates of dollar LIBOR in London and illustrates how cash settlement derivatives actually multiply risk without limit. Through the wonders of cash settlement, the derivative-happy squirrels at the Fed, BIS and ISDA created a liquidity-sucking monster in OTC derivatives that multiplies risk many times, for example, above the amount of underlying debt of Lehman Brothers. But remember two things: a) In some single-name CDS contracts, the buyer of protection must deliver to get paid; and b) in those contracts, where the buyer fails to deliver, the provider of protection can walk away.
We hear that there are more than a few EU banks which wrote CDS on Lehman over the past several years, CDS which were written at relatively tight spreads. These banks did not participate in the DTCC auction and instead have chosen to take delivery on the Lehman debt, forcing them to fund a nearly 100% payout on the collateral. A certain German Landesbank, for example, took delivery on $1 billion in Lehman bonds that are now worth $30 million, and had to fund same. Does this example perhaps suggest a reason why the bid side of dollar LIBOR in London has been so strong?
As one veteran CDS trader told The IRA on Friday, “It’s not that people can’t fund, it is that people have got to fund these CDS positions. These banks don’t have access to sufficient liquidity internally to fund, so they hit the London markets… The Fed and the other central banks must start to deal with the huge overhang of currently hidden funding needs from the CDS and other derivatives.” Another market observer suggests this is precisely why the Fed and other central banks have been furiously putting reciprocal currently swap lines in place.
Then there is the situation with Fannie and Freddie paper, which is currently trading 200-300 over the curve despite the Paulson quasi-nationalization this past August. Some of the very same EU banks that are getting killed on Lehman paper are also taking delivery of GSE paper on CDS positions. In this case, the payout on the CDS is small since the GSE debt is money good, at least in nominal terms, thus the net recovery value is high. But the huge overhang of paper in the markets is making the in theory “AAA” rated GSEs trade like poor quality corporates.
In both cases, the normal operation of the OTC derivatives markets is creating a cash position that must be funded in the real world and is thus distorting these benchmark cash markets such as LIBOR. This distortion is magnified by the dearth of liquidity due to the breakdown in the rules regarding valuation and price. So far, the Fed and other central banks have addressed the on-balance sheet liquidity needs of global banks. But as retail and corporate default rates rise, funding the trillions of dollars in notional off-balance sheet speculative positions in CDS, which become very real and require funding when a default occurs, could prolong the economic crisis and siphon resources away from the real economy.: