Synthetic CDOs, Ratings, And Super Senior Tranches: Part 3

Prescience and Precedent

In the previous articles (part 1 and part 2), we discussed both the modeling and rating of  CDOs and their tranches. In this article, we will discuss the rating of synthetic CDOs and those fabled “super senior” tranches. As mentioned in the previous articles, I highly recommend that you read my article on Synthetic CDOs and my article on tranches.

Funded And Unfunded Synthetic CDOs

As explained here, the asset underlying a synthetic CDO is a portfolio of the long positions of credit default swaps. That is, investors in synthetic CDOs have basically sold protection on various entities to the CDS market through the synthetic CDO structure. Although most CDS agreements will require collateral to be posted based on who is in the money (and may also require an upfront payment), as a matter of market practice, the protection seller does not fund the long position. That is, if A sold $1 million worth of protection to B, A would not post the $1 million to B or a custodian. (Note that this is a market convention and could change organically or by fiat at any moment given the current market context). Thus, B is exposed to the risk that A will not payout upon a default.

Because the long position of a CDS is usually unfunded, Synthetic CDOs can be funded, unfunded, or partially funded. If the investors post the full notional amount of protection sold by the SPV, then the transaction is called a fully funded synthetic CDO. For example, if the SPV sold $100 million worth of protection to the swap market, the investors could put up $100 million in cash at the outset of the synthetic CDO transaction. In this case, the investors would receive some basis rate, usually LIBOR, plus a spread. Because the market practice does not require a CDS to be funded, the investors could hang on to their cash and simply promise to payout in the event that a default occurs in one of the CDSs entered into by the SPV. This is called an unfunded synthetic CDO. In this case, the investors would receive only the spread over the basis rate. If the investors put up some amount less than the full notional amount of protection sold by the SPV, then the transaction is called a partially funded synthetic CDO. Note that the investors’ exposure to default risk does not change whether the transaction is funded or unfunded. Rather, the SPV’s counterparties are exposed to counterparty risk in the case of an unfunded transaction. That is, the investors could fail to payout upon a default and therefore the SPV would not have the money to payout on the protection it sold to the swap market. Again, this is not a risk borne by the investors, but by the SPV’s counterparties.

Analyzing The Risks Of Synthetic CDOs

As mentioned above, whether a synthetic CDO is funded, unfunded or partially funded does not affect the default risks that investors are exposed to. That said, investors in synthetic CDOs are exposed to counterparty risk. That is, if a counterparty fails to make a swap fee payment to the SPV, the investors will lose money. Thus, a synthetic CDO exposes investors to an added layer of risk that is not present in an ordinary CDO transaction. So, in addition to being exposed to the risk that a default will occur in any of the underlying CDSs, synthetic CDO investors are exposed to the risk that one of the SPV’s counterparties will fail to pay. Additionally, there could be correlation between these two risks. For example, the counterparty to one CDS could be a reference entity in another CDS. Although such obvious examples of correlation may not exist in a given synthetic CDO, counterparty risk and default risk could interact in much more subtle and complex ways. Full examination of this topic is beyond the scope of this article.

In a synthetic CDO, the investors are the protection sellers and the SPV’s counterparties are the protection buyers. As such, the payments owed by the SPV’s counterparties could be much smaller than the total notional amount of protection sold by the SPV. Additionally, any perceived counterparty risk could be mitigated through the use of collateral. That is, those counterparties that have or are downgraded to low credit ratings could be required to post collateral. As a result, we might choose to ignore counterparty risk altogether as a practical matter and focus only on default risk. This would allow us to more easily compare synthetic and ordinary CDOs and would allow us to use essentially the same model to rate both. Full examination of this topic is also beyond the scope of this article. For more on this topic and and others, go here.

Synthetic CDO Ratings And Super Senior Tranches

After we have decided upon a model and run some simulations, we will produce a chart that provides the probability that losses will exceed X. We will now compare two synthetic CDOs with identical underlying assets but different tranches. Assume that the tranches are broken down by color in the charts below. Additionally, assume that in our rating system (Joe’s Rating System), a tranche is AAA rated if the probability of full repayment of principle and interest is at least 99%.

default-model-tranched-sidebyside2

Note that our first synthetic CDO has only 3 tranches, whereas the second has 4, since in in the second chart, we have subdivided the 99th percentile. The probability that losses will reach into the green tranche is lower than the probability that losses will reach into the yellow tranches of either chart. Because the yellow tranches are AAA rated in both charts, certain market participants refer to the green tranche as super senior. That is, the green tranche is senior to a AAA rated tranche. This is a bit of a misnomer. Credit ratings and seniority levels are distinct concepts and the term “super senior” conflates the two. A bond can be senior to all others yet have a low credit rating. For example, the most senior obligations of ABC corporation, which has been in financial turmoil since incorporation, could be junk-rated. And a bond can be subordinate to all others but still have a high credit rating. So, we must treat each concept independently. That said, there is a connection between the two concepts. At some point, subordination will erode credit quality. That is, if we took the same set of cash flows and kept subdividing and subordinating rights in that set of cash flows, eventually the lower tranches will have a credit rating that is inferior to the higher tranches. It seems that the two concepts have been commingled in the mental real estate of certain market participants as a result of this connection.

Blessed Are The Forgetful

So is there a difference between AAA notes subordinated to some “super senior” tranche and plain old senior AAA rated notes? Yes, there is, but that shouldn’t surprise you if you distinguish between credit ratings and seniority. You should notice that the former note is subordinated while the latter isn’t. And bells should go off in your mind once you notice this. The rating “AAA” describes the probability of full payment of interest and principle. Under Joe’s Ratings, it tells you that the probability that losses will reach the AAA tranche is less than 1%. The AAA rating makes no other statements about the notes. If losses reach the point X = L*, investors in the subordinated AAA notes (the second chart, yellow tranche) will receive nothing while investors in the senior AAA notes (the first chart, yellow tranche) will not be fully paid, but will receive a share of the remaining cash flows. This difference in behavior is due to a difference in seniority, not credit rating. If we treat these concepts as distinct, we should anticipate such differences in behavior and plan accordingly.

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A Conceptual Framework For Analyzing Systemic Risk

The Cart Before The Horse

There has been a lot of chatter about the systemic risks posed by derivatives, particularly credit default swaps. Rather than offer any formal method of evaluating an enormously complicated question, pundits wield exclamation points and false inferences to distract from the glaring holes in their logic. Below I will not offer any definite answers to any questions about the systemic risks posed by derivatives. Rather, I will describe what I think is a reasonable and useful framework for analyzing systemic risks posed by derivatives. Unfortunately for some, this will involve the use of mathematics. And while the math used is fairly elementary, the concepts are not. This is especially true of the last section. That said, even if you do not fully understand the entirety of this article, one thing should be clear: questions about systemic risk are complex and anyone who gives declarative answers to such questions is almost certain to have no idea what they are talking about.

Risk Magnification And Syndication

As discussed here, derivatives operate by creating and allocating risks that did not exist before the two parties entered into the transaction. That is an unavoidable fact. Moreover, there is no physical limit to the notional amount of any given contract or the number of derivative contracts that parties can enter into. It is entirely up to them. That said, derivatives can be used to negate risks that parties were already exposed to in exchange for assuming other risks, thereby acting as a risk-switching/risk-transferring device. So, a corollary of these observations is that derivatives could be used to create unlimited amounts of risk but through that risk creation they could be used to negate an unlimited amount of risk that parties are already exposed to and thereby effectively “transfer” an unlimited amount of risk to those willing to be exposed to it.

Practically speaking, there is a limit to the amount of risk that can be created using derivatives. This limit exists for a very simple reason: the contracts are voluntary, and so if no one is willing to be exposed to a particular risk, it will not be created and assigned through a derivative. Like most market participants, derivatives traders are not in engaged in an altruistic endeavor. As a result, we should not expect them to engage in activities that they don’t expect to be profitable. Therefore, we can be reasonably certain that the derivatives market will create only as much risk as its participants expect to be profitable. Whether their expectations are correct is an entirely different matter, and any criticism on that front is not unique to derivatives traders. Rather, the problem of flawed expectations permeates all of human decision making.

Even if we ignore the practical limits to the creation of risk, derivatives allow for unlimited syndication of risk. That is, there is no smallest unit of risk that can be transferred. Consequently, any fixed amount of risk can be syndicated out to an arbitrarily large number of parties, thereby minimizing the probability that any individual market participant will fail as a result of that risk.

Finally, we should ask ourselves, what does the term systemic risk even mean? The only thing it can mean in the context of derivatives is that the obligations created by two parties will have an effect on at least one other third party. So, even assuming that derivatives create such a “problem,” how is this “problem” any different than that created by a landlord who plans to pay a contractor with the rent he receives from his tenants? It is not.

A Closer Look At Risk

As stated here, my own view is that risk is a concept that has two components: (i) the occurrence of an event and (ii) a magnitude associated with that event. This allows us to ask two questions: What is the probability of the event occurring? And if it occurs, what is the expected value of its associated magnitude? We say that P is exposed to a given risk if P expects to incur a gain/loss if the risk-event occurs. As is evident, under this rubric, that whole conversation above was grossly imprecise. But that’s ok. Its import is clear enough. From here on, however, we will tolerate no such imprecision.

Identifying And Defining Risks

Using the definition above, let’s try to define one of the risks that all parties who sold protection on ABC’s series I bonds through a CDS that calls for physical delivery are exposed to. This will allow us to begin to understand the systemic risk that such credit default swaps create. There is no hard rule about how to go about doing this. If we do a poor job of identifying and defining the relevant risks, we will have a poor understanding of those relevant risks. However, common sense tells us that any protection seller’s risk exposure is going to have something to do with triggering a payout under a CDS. So, let’s define the risk-event as any default on ABC series I bonds. For simplicities sake, let’s limit our definition of default to ABC’s failure to pay interest or principle. So, our risk-event is: ABC fails to pay interest or principle on any of its bonds. But what is our risk-magnitude? Since we are trying to define a risk that protection sellers are exposed to, our associated magnitude should be the basis upon which all payments by protection sellers are made. So, we will define the risk-magnitude as M=1 - \frac{P_d}{P} where P_d is the price of an ABC series I bond after the risk-event (default) occurs and P is the par value of an ABC series I bond. For example, if ABC’s series I bonds are trading at 30 cents on the dollar after default, M = .7 and a protection seller would have to payout 70 cents for every dollar of notional amount. The amount that bonds trade at after a default is called the recovery value.

One Man’s Garbage Is Another Man’s Glory

When one party to a derivative makes a payment, the other receives it. That seems simple enough. But it follows that if we consider only those payments made under the derivative contract itself, the net position of the two parties is unchanged over the life of the agreement. That is, derivatives create zero-sum games and simply shift and reallocate money that already existed between the two parties. So in continuing with our example above, it follows that we’ve also defined a risk that buyers of protection on ABC series I bonds are exposed to. However, protection buyers have positive exposure to that risk. That is, if ABC defaults, protection buyers receive money.

Exposure To Risk And Settlement Flow Analysis

If our concept of exposure is to have any real economic significance, it must take into account the concept of netting. So, we define the exposure of P_i to the risk-event defined above as the product of (i) the net notional amount of all credit default swaps naming ABC series I bonds as a reference obligation to which P_i is a counterparty, which we will call N_i, and (ii) M. The net notional amount is simply the difference between the total notional amount of protection bought and the total notional amount of protection sold by P_i. So, if P_i is a net seller of protection, N_i will be negative and therefore its exposure, N_i \cdot M, will be either negative or zero.

Because the payments between the two counterparties of each derivative net to zero, it follows that the sum of all net notional amounts is always zero. That is, if there are k market participants, \sum_{i=1}^kN_i = 0. The total notional amount of the entire market is given by N_T = \frac{1}{2} \sum_{i=1}^k|N_i|. This is the figure that is most often reported by the media. As is evident, it is impossible to determine the economic significance of this number without first knowing the structure of the market. That is, we must know how much is owed and to whom. However, after we have this information, we can choose different recovery values and then calculate each party’s exposure. This would enable us to determine how much cash each participant would have to set aside for a default at various recovery values (simply calculate each party’s exposure at the various recovery values).

Let’s consider a concrete example. In the diagram below, an edge coming from a participant represents protection sold by that participant and consequently an incoming edge represents protection bought by that participant. The amounts written beside these edges represent the notional amount of protection bought/sold. The amounts written beside the nodes represent the net notional amounts.

cds-market-diagram

In the example above, D is a dealer and his net notional amount is zero, and therefore his exposure to the risk-event is 0 \cdot M = 0 . As is evident, we can vary the recovery value to determine what each market participant’s exposure would be in that case. We could then consider other risk-events that occur in conjunction with any given risk-event. For example, we could consider the conjunctive risk-event “ABC defaults and B fails to pay under any CDS” (in which case D’s exposure would not be zero) or any other variation that addresses meaningful concerns. For now, we will focus on our single event risk for explanatory purposes. But even if we restrict ourselves to single event risks, there’s more to a CDS than just default. Collateral will move through the above system dynamically throughout the lives of the contracts. In order to understand how we can analyze the systemic risks posed by the dynamic shifting of collateral, we must first examine what it is that causes collateral to be posted under a CDS.

We’re In The Money

CDS contracts come in and out of the money to a party based on the price of protection. If a party is out of money, the typical market practice is to require that party to post collateral. For example, if I bought protection at a price of 50bp, and suddenly the price jumps to 100bp, I’m in the money and my counterparty is out of the money. Thus, my counterparty will be required to post collateral. We can view the price of protection as providing an implied probability of default. Exactly how this is done is not important. But it should be clear that there is a connection between the cost of protecting debt and the probability of default on that debt (the higher the probability the higher the cost). Thus, as the implied probability of default changes over the life of the agreement, collateral will change hands.

Collateral Flow Analysis

In the previous sections, we assumed that the risk-event was certain to occur and then calculated the exposures based on an assumed recovery value. So, in effect, we were asking “what happens when parties settle their contracts at a given recovery value?” But what if we want to consider what happens before any default actually occurs? That is, what if we want to consider “what happens if the probability of default is p?” Because collateral will be posted as the price of protection changes over the life of the agreement and the price of protection provides an implied probability of default, it follows that the answer to this question should have something to do with the flow of collateral.

Continuing with the ABC bond example above, we can examine how collateral will move through the system by asking two questions: (i) what is the implied probability of the risk-event (ABC’s default) occurring and (ii) what is the expected value of the risk-magnitude (the basis upon which collateral payments are made). As discussed above, the implied probability of default will change over the life of the agreement, which will in turn affect the flow of collateral in the system. Since our goal in this section is to test the system’s behavior at different implied probabilities of default, the expected value of our risk-magnitude should be a function of an assumed implied probability of default. So, we define the expected value of our risk-magnitude as M_e = p^* \cdot M where p^* is our assumed implied probability of default and M is defined as it is above. It follows that this analysis will break CDS contracts into categories according to the price at which they were entered into. That is, you can’t ask how much something changed without first knowing what it was to begin with.

Assume that P_i entered into CDS contracts at m_i different prices. For example, he entered into four contracts at 20 bp and eight contracts at 50bp, and no others. In this case, m_i = 2. For each P_i, assign an arbitrary ordering, (c_{i,1}, ... , c_{i,m_i}), to the sets of contracts that were entered into at different prices by P_i. In the example where m_i = 2, we could let c_{i,1} be the set of eight contracts entered into at 50bp and let c_{i,2} be the set of four contracts entered into at 20 bp. Each of these sets will have a net notional amount and an implied probability of default (since each is categorized by price). Define n_{i,j} as the net notional amount of the contracts in c_{i,j} and p_{i,j} as the implied probability of default of the contracts in c_{i,j} for each 1 \leq j \leq m_i. We define the expected exposure of P_i as:

EX_i = M_e \cdot \sum_{j = 1}^{m_i}\left(\frac{p^* - p_{i,j}}{1 - p_{i,j}} \cdot n_{i,j}\right) .

Note that when p^* = 1,

EX_i = M \cdot \sum_{j = 1}^{m_i}\left(\frac{1 - p_{i,j}}{1 - p_{i,j}} \cdot n_{i,j}\right) = M \cdot N_i .

That is, this is a generalized version of the settlement analysis above, and when we assume that default is certain, collateral flow analysis reduces to settlement flow analysis.

So What Does That Awful Formula Tell Us?

A participant’s expected exposure is a reasonable estimate for the amount of collateral that will be posted or received by that participant at an assumed implied probability of default. The exact amount of collateral that will be posted or received under any contract will be determined by the terms of that contract. As a result, our model is approximate and not exact. However, the direction that collateral moves in our model is exact. That is, if a party’s expected exposure is negative, it will not receive collateral, and if it is positive, it will not post collateral. It also shows that even if a party is completely hedged in the event of a default, it is possible that it is not completely hedged to posting collateral. That is, even if it bought and sold the same notional amount of protection, it could have done so at different prices.