Tranches And Risk

What Is A Tranche?

Tranche is a French word that means slice. Every investment will convey certain rights in the cash flows produced by the investment to the investors. A tranche is a slice of those rights. Quite literally, each tranche represents a unique piece of the investment pie. So the term tranche connotes a fairly accurate indication of how the term is used in finance. And after all, it’s easier to tell investors that they’re buying tranches as opposed to “pits” or “buckets.”

Payment Waterfalls

A payment waterfall determines who gets paid what and when. That is, each dollar produced by an investment will be “pushed through” a payment waterfall and allocated according to the rules in the payment waterfall. For example, assume that there are 3 investors, A, B and C. They collectively invest in venture X. The payment waterfall for X is defined as follows: on the first of each month, A will be paid the lesser of (i) \$100 and (ii) all of the cash flows produced by X in the previous month; B will be paid the lesser of (i) \$100 and (ii) all of the cash flows produced by X in the previous month less any amounts paid to A; and C will be paid the lesser of (i) \$100 and (ii) all of the cash flows produced by X in the previous month less any amounts paid to A and B.

Assume that in month 1, X produced \$300 in cash. On the first day of month 2, the \$300 will be pushed through the waterfall. So A will get \$100; B will get \$100; and C will get \$100. Note that in the case of C, the two choices will produce equal amounts, so the term “lessor of” isn’t technically accurate. But assume that when the choice is between equal amounts, we simply pay that amount. Now assume that X produced \$150 in month 1. On the first day of month 2, the \$150 will be pushed through the waterfall. So A will get \$100; B will get \$50; and C will get \$0. Because A is “first” to get paid, so long as X produces \$100 per month, A is fully paid. B is fully paid so long as X produces \$200 per month and C at \$300 per month. So in this case, A’s tranche is said to be the least risky of the 3 tranches, with B and C being more risky in that order. Note that I am not using my technical definition of risk.

So why would C agree to be last in the pecking order? Well, one simple explanation is that C paid the least for his tranche. In another example we could have given C the right to any amounts left over each month after all other tranches are paid. This type of right is called a residual right. It is basically an equity stake. So in that case C would bear the risk that X’s cash flows will fall short in exchange for the right to acquire any excess cash flows produced by X. As is evident, the terms of the waterfall can be anything that the parties agree to. As such, we can cater the payment priorities to meet the specific desires of investors and distribute risks accordingly.

Mortgage Backed Securities And Prepayment Risk

Securitization is a fairly simple process to grasp in the abstract. In reality, turning thousands of mortgages into interest bearing notes is not a simple process. However, we can at least begin to understand the process by considering how a payment waterfall can be used to streamline the payments to investors. Viewed as a bond, a mortgage is a bond where the borrower, in this case the mortgagor, has a right to call the bond at any point in time. That is, at any point in time, a mortgagor can simply repay the full amount owed and terminate the lending agreement. Additionally, even if the mortgagor doesn’t pay the full amount owed, it is free to pay more than the amount obligated under the mortgage and allocate any additional amounts to the outstanding principal on the mortgage. For example, if A has a mortgage where A is obligated to make monthly payments of \$100, A could pay \$150 in a particular month, and request that the lender allocate the additional \$50 to reduce the outstanding principal on the mortgage.

The typical practice for a mortgage is to require the mortgagor to make fixed payments over the life of the mortgage. So each payment will consist of an interest portion and a principal portion. The amount allocated to principal is predetermined and said to amortize over the life of the mortgage. And as mentioned above, any amount over the fixed amount can be allocated to principal at the option of the mortgagor. The risk that any given loan will pay an amount above the required fixed payment is called prepayment risk.

While getting your money back is usually a good thing, investors prefer to defer repayment to some future date in exchange for receiving more money than they invested. So getting all of their principal back today is not the most preferred outcome. They prefer to get their principal at maturity plus interest over the life of the agreement. For example, if all of the mortgages in a pool of mortgages that have been securitized prepay the full amount before the anticipated maturity date of the notes, then the investors will presumably be repaid, but will not receive the remaining interest payments over the anticipated life of the notes. If this prepayment en masse occurs on the second day of the life of the notes, it would defeat the purpose of the investment.

Prepayment Risk And Payment Waterfalls

We can use payment waterfalls to distribute prepayment risk into different tranches. In reality, this can become a mind numbingly complex endeavor. We propose one simple example to demonstrate how tranches can be used to redistribute complex risks.

Assume that our mortgage pool consists of $N$ mortgages; the remaining principal on each mortgage is $p_i$; and the total remaining principal on the pool is $P = p_1 + \cdots + p_N$. Because each mortgage payment consists of some interest and some principal, each month, there will be a scheduled reduction in the outstanding total principal on the pool. Let $S$ denote the scheduled reduction of $P$. That is, $S$ is the sum of all of the principal portions of the fixed payments to be made in the pool. If there are any prepayments in the underlying mortgages, the actual reduction in $P$ will exceed the scheduled reduction. Let $A$ denote the actual reduction in $P$. The question now becomes, what do we do with $A - S$? That is, how do we distribute the amount by which the actual reduction in total principal exceeds the scheduled reduction? The simple answer, and the one considered here, is to push the entire prepayment amount onto one tranche, and reduce the outstanding principal on that tranche by that same amount.

For example, assume that a mortgage pool contains mortgages with a total \$100 million principal outstanding and that \$100 million worth of notes were issued against that pool. Further, assume that there are two tranches of notes: the A series and B series, with \$50 million face value of each outstanding. For simplicity’s sake, assume the notes pay interest monthly. On any interest payment date, we could pay the B series the entire prepayment amount $A - S$ and reduce the face value on the B series notes by $A - S$. For example, if on the first interest payment date, $A - S =$ \$10 million, then we would pay the \$10 million to the B series note holders and reduce the face value on the B series to \$40 million. Thus, any prepayment amount less than or equal to \$50 million will be completely absorbed by the B series note holders. So the net effect is to cushion the A series against a certain amount of prepayment risk. The B series note holders will likely demand something in return for bearing this risk.