Saturday, May 22, 2010

Financial Regulation and Credit Default Swaps

CDS isn't involved in just insurance, it's used in CDOs to make synthetic bonds. If I write a CDS on GM bonds, I get paid the "premium" as long as GM doesn't default. If they do default, I must pay the contract amount and I receive the defaulted bonds in return (or I receive the liquidation value of the defaulted bonds back). I also have to put up collateral that pays the risk-free Treasury yield. Add it all together and you have something very much like a GM bond where I would receive interest payments as long as GM doesn't default and if they do, I lose my initial purchase (contract amount) minus whatever I can receive for the defaulted bonds (liquidation value).

The theory is to separate risk from investment. What if I just want to take on the risk of GM bonds without having to actually lend GM money, thus tying up my precious capital? With a traditional bond, I need to loan GM X money for a period of years and I will get X money back at the end assuming there is no default. What if I don't want to tie up that capital but still want to take on that risk? Well let someone else lend GM the money, I'll write a CDS on it and sell it to them. There, they just transferred the risk to me and I didn't have to lend GM any money (though I still have to put up collateral usually). Now that the other guy has a risk-free asset, he can then purchase more bonds up to the risk limit set by the risk management team. That's how it's supposed to work in theory. Of course, in reality his insured GM bond isn't risk free, if I go under, his insurance is worthless.

I think the problem lies with leverage and leverage ratios. CDS can help firms manage their risk without making big capital intensive moves. Selling GM bonds from your portfolio means that you have to find a buyer with the money, and then you're left with the problem of what to do with the money you just got. Where to put it? Why not just buy a CDS contract instead? That way, you get rid of the risk and don't have the problem of what to do with the excess cash.

When risk is being pawned off in an endless cycle, it can become hard to tell exactly how much systemic risk is left. I think I have sold my risk thanks to my CDS purchase, but so does the guy who sold me the CDS because he purchased another CDS to get rid of his risk. Risk keeps on getting transferred, we know that the total risk to the market as a whole cannot be eliminated or reduced merely by transferring, but each person thinks he's OK because he's sold his risk to some other guy who has sold his risk and on and on. It's hard to tell if the guy I purchased CDS from has too much CDS exposure (too overleveraged) because I don't know how many CDS he's sold or purchased since the time I originally purchased CDS from him.

Some limit has to be set for the amount of CDS exposure a firm has given his capital base. That amounts to a limit on leverage. A clearinghouse would make the market more transparent so I can see that there is way too many CDS out there for the CDS I just purchased to be considered safe. Right now there is no way for the individual actor to see the entire whole and the entire whole has a great impact on the individual actor. That is part of the problem. We need to think about the issues and come up with good solutions, I don't think banning CDS is even remotely close to the best solution.

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