In The Year 2010: C.D.O. Edition

In another installment of the series called “In The Year 2010″ I will sit here and guess what will be going on by the end of 2010 with respect to various products. (Inspired by the Conan O’Brian skit “In The Year 2000″). This is a thought experiment, nothing more.

This edition, as the title would seem to suggest, is about C.D.O.’s. Please sit down, because I’m about to argue something very counter-intuitive. C.D.O.’s will be alive and well in the year 2010. Now, I’m willing to claim this victory on a technicality–corporate C.D.O.’s are still being issued. Now, safe in my assured technical victory, I’ll go farther out on the limb

It’s somewhat instructive to understand what have been the various motivations behind the C.D.O. market, historically (some of these obviously no longer exist)…

  1. There was the reach for yield. If one could get AAA C.D.O.’s for a higher yield than other AAA bonds, it was a no brainer. Both were AAA, obviously! No extra risk.
  2. A highly customized risk profile. If I looked at a pool and thought 6% of the balance was going to written off, but no more, I could buy the 7%-10% tranche and get a higher return. Obviously this higher return would need to match whatever threshhold I established, but that was most likely related to the market anyway. Some people referred to this as taking a position in the collateral with leverage. C.D.O.’s are, in essence, leverage on leverage, but this is a complicated, technical, and largely semantic argument. The surface intuition is that taking a levered position increases your return if nothing defaults, but less has to default for the buyer to lose money.
  3. C.D.O.’s were used to finance bonds or other debt positions. “How?” is what I heard you say, in the back? Well, think about it this way: an investment bank requires 50% of the purchase price of a set of bonds and charges LIBOR+100bps on the other 50%. We say that you’ve financed the purchase of the bonds two to one at a rate of one hundred basis points over LIBOR. Now, using our example, let’s say one could issue a C.D.O. and sell enough bonds to get 50% of the purchase price of the underlying bonds up front. Let’s also assume that the liabilities have a weighted average interest rate of LIBOR+10bps. Using the C.D.O. instead of a traditional loan, especially since the C.D.O. can’t be cancelled like a loan can and, most likely, contains much more lax terms than a loan, is much more cost effective. Taking this a step further, it was even possible for C.D.O.’s to be issued that allowed more bonds to be put into the C.D.O. or allow bonds that were sold to be replaced. This effecive made the C.D.O. a credit line with an extremely cheap interest rate. Keep in mind the “equity” or “most levered tranche” or “bottom” of the C.D.O. generally was structured to have a very high return, somewhere in the 15-25% range.

Also, the backdrop of the boom in C.D.O.’s, don’t forget, was a very low rate environment. If one could get LIBOR+10-15bps on AAA bonds when rates were, in 2004 for example, 1% (for USD LIBOR and the Fed Funds), that was a major out performance for a AAA security (AAA, how much risk could there be?!).

Now that the historical context is out of the way, it seems pretty clear that some of these reasons for isssuing C.D.O.’s will not diminish in importance. Funds and money managers will always need more yield. Investors that are smart about credit analysis will always want to take the risks they understand and get paid for taking said risks. Funds and other “levered players” will always need financing. So, let’s examine how the landscape changes rather than disappears.

  1. Complexity will die. There are a number of reasons for this. Part of the reason is that buyers of C.D.O.’s will begin to realize that structure adds a layer of complexity that no one really can grasp fully. Why have dozens of triggers and tests at every stage of the waterfall (the way cash is distributed in order of seniority)? In some deals, I’m sure, this complexity helped some tranches of the C.D.O. In some other deals, I’m sure, this complexity hurt some tranches of the C.D.O. The one  constant is that it’s nearly impossible to tell the right levels and specific mechanics beforehand. Hence the complexity will die and structures will simplify. Likely this also means less tranches. Why have a $4 million tranche size in a $400+ million deal when you can’t even predict losses within an order of magnitude (1%, 9%. or 20%? Who knows?!)? This is hardly a new concept, I introduced it already when discussing residential mortgages.
  2. Arbitrage C.D.O.’s will reign supreme. This one is controversial, and the term “Arbitrage C.D.O.” almost takes on a different meaning each time it’s defined. The intuition, though, is that a hedge fund taking advantage of a market dislocation by issuing a C.D.O. is an “Arbitrage C.D.O.” Why will these be popular? Well, C.D.O. shops, or firms that are serial issuers of C.D.O.’s, have mostly blown up and are done. Traditional money managers will be shying away from C.D.O.’s for a long time. So, in order to sell the C.D.O. equity, the most levered risky piece, the firm issuing the C.D.O. will need to also be willing to take on the equity–this leaves only hedge funds. Arbitrage C.D.O.’s also come together more quickly and generally are backed by corporate bonds. Funds and other accounts that, as a core competency, already analyze corporate credit won’t have to go “outside the comfort zone” to buy into arbitrage C.D.O.’s.
  3. C.D.O.’s or C.D.O. technology will become part of the M&A world more and more. Aha! Maybe too clever for my own good, but while all these specialty finance companies used to be able to issue a C.D.O. for funding purposes on their own, now they will need an investment bank to connect them with hedge funds or take on the debt, and thus the risk, themselves. These C.D.O.’s will likely be simple too (see #1), but will be an efficient way for these companies to finance assets or move them off the balance sheet. Here’s an example: a diversified finance firm, with a large lending presence, for example (most likely with a R.E.I.T. subsidiary, a popular structure of the past eight years) will be looking to sell itself. However, because the assets on it’s balance sheet look risky the leveraged finance groups will need to arrange some financing against those assets. The structure? Most likely a C.D.O. with hedge funds providing the cash and getting a “juiced” return on their money. This is essentially the covered bond product, but with an extra layer of complexity (tranching) on top.

Okay… that’s enough prognosticating for now. Still deciding which product is next. Drop me a line if you have a favorite!

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3 Comments on “In The Year 2010: C.D.O. Edition”


  1. […] * The Year 2010: CDO Edition […]

  2. James Cullen Says:

    I suppose credit default swaps are a natural pick, but if you’d like to take this a step further why not combine those and look at synthetic CDOs, aka collateralized swaps?

    Another area (one I know far less about) is the total return swap…


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