Derivatives/Synthetic Instruments Demystified

What Is A Derivative?

A derivative is a contract that derives its value by reference to “something else.” That something else can be pretty much anything that can be objectively observed and measured. For example, two parties, A and B, could get together and agree to take positions on the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA). That’s an index that can be objectively observed and measured. A could agree to pay B the total percentage-wise return on that index from October 31, 2007 to October 31, 2008 multiplied by a notional amount, where that amount is to be paid on October 31, 2008. In exchange, B could agree to make quarterly payments of some percentage of the notional amount (the swap fee) over that same time frame. Let’s say the notional amount is $100 (a position that even Joe The Plumber can take on); the swap fee is 10% per annum; and the total return on the DJIA over that period is 15%. It doesn’t take Paul Erdős to realize that this leaves B in the money and A out of the money (A pays $15 and receives $10, so he loses $5).

But what if the DJIA didn’t gain 15%? What if it tanked 40% instead? In that case, we have to look to our agreement. Our agreement allocated the DJIA’s returns to B and fixed payments to A. It didn’t mention DJIA loss. The parties can agree to distribute gain and loss in the underlying reference (the DJIA) any way they like: that’s the beauty of enforceable contracts. Let’s say that under their agreement, B agreed to pay the negative returns in the DJIA multiplied by the notional amount.  If the market tanked 40%, then B would have made the fixed payments of 10% over the life of the agreement, plus another 40% at the end. That leaves him down $50. Bad year for B.

Follow The Money

So what is the net effect of that agreement? B always pays 10% to A, whether the DJIA goes up, down, or stays flat over the relevant time frame. If the DJIA goes up, A has to pay B the percentage-wise returns. If the DJIA goes down, B has to pay A the percentage-wise losses. So, A profits if the DJIA goes down, stays flat, or goes up less than 10% and B profits if the DJIA goes up more than 10%. So, A is short on the DJIA going up 10% and B is long on the DJIA going up 10%. This is accomplished without either of them taking actual ownership of any stocks in the DJIA. We say that A is synthetically shorting the DJIA and B is synthetically long on the DJIA. This type of agreement is called a total return swap (TRS). This TRS exposes A to the risk that the DJIA will appreciate by more than 10% over the life of the agreement and B to the risk that the DJIA will not appreciate by more than 10%.

What Is Risk?

There are a number of competing definitions depending on the context. My own personal view is that risk 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. For example, in the TRS between A and B, A is exposed to the risk that the DJIA will appreciate by more than 10% over the life of agreement. That risk has two components: the event (the DJIA appreciating by more than 10%) and a magnitude associated with that event (the amount by which it exceeds 10%). In this case, the occurrence of the event and its associated magnitude are equivalent (any non-zero positive value for the magnitude implies that the event occurred) and so our two questions reduce to one question: what is the expected value of the DJIA at the end of the agreement? That obviously depends on who you ask. So, can we then infer that A expects the DJIA to gain less than 10% over the life of the agreement? No, we cannot. If A actually owns $100 worth of the DJIA, A is fully hedged and the agreement is equivalent to bona fide financing. That is, A has no exposure to the DJIA (short on the DJIA through the TRS and long through actually owning it) and makes money only through the swap fee. B’s position is the same whether A owns the underlying index or not: B is long on the DJIA, as if he actually owned it. That is, B has synthesized exposure to the DJIA. So, if A is fully hedged the TRS is equivalent to a financing agreement where A “loans” B $100 to buy $100 worth of the DJIA, and then A holds the assets for the life of agreement (like a collateralized loan). As such, B will never agree to pay a swap fee on a TRS that is higher than his cost of financing (since he can just go get a loan and buy the reference asset).

How Derivatives Create, Allocate, And “Transfer” Risk

It is commonly said that derivatives transfer risk. This is not technically true, but often appears to be the case.  Derivatives operate by creating risks that were not present before the parties entered into the derivative contract. For example, assume that A and B enter into an interest rate swap, where A agrees to pay B a fixed annual rate of 8% and B agrees to pay A a floating annual rate, say LIBOR, where each is multiplied by a notional amount of $100. Each party agrees to make quarterly payments. Assume that on the first payment date, LIBOR = 4%.  It follows that A owes B $2 and B owes A $1. So, after netting, A pays B $1.

Through the interest rate swap, A is exposed to the risk that LIBOR will fall below 8%. Similarly, B is exposed to the risk that LIBOR will increase above 8%. The derivative contract created these risks and assigned them to A and B respectively. So why do people say that derivatives transfer risk? Assume that A is a corporation and that before A entered into the swap, A issued $100 worth of bonds that pay investors LIBOR annually. By issuing these bonds, A became exposed to the risk that LIBOR would increase by any amount. Assume that the payment dates on the bonds are the same as those under the swap. A’s annual cash outflow under the swap is (.08 – LIBOR) x 100. It’s annual payments on the bonds are LIBOR x 100. So it’s total annual cash outflow under both the bonds and the swap is:

(.08 – LIBOR) x 100 +  LIBOR x 100 = .08 x 100 – LIBOR x 100  + LIBOR x 100 = 8%.

So, A has taken its floating rate LIBOR bonds and effectively transformed them into fixed rate bonds. We say that A has achieved this fixed rate synthetically.

At first glance, it appears as though A has transferred its LIBOR exposure to B through the swap.  This is not technically true. Before A entered into the swap, A was exposed to the risk that LIBOR would increase by any amount. After the swap, A is exposed to the risk that LIBOR will fall under 8%. So, even though A makes fixed payments, it is still exposed to risk: the risk that it will pay above its market rate of financing (LIBOR). For simplicity’s sake, assume that B was not exposed to any type of risk before the swap. After the swap, B is exposed to the risk that LIBOR will rise above 8%. This is not the same risk that A was exposed to before the swap (any increase in LIBOR) but it is a similar one (any increase in LIBOR above 8%).

So What Types Of Risk Can Be Allocated Using Derivatives?

Essentially any risk that has an objectively observable event and an objectively measureable associated magnitude can be assigned a financial component and allocated using a derivative contract. There are derivative markets for risks tied to weather, energy products, interest rates, currency, etc. Wherever there is a business or regulatory motivation, financial products will appear to meet the demand. What is important is to realize that all of these products can be analyzed in the same way: identify the risks, and then figure out how they are allocated. This is usally done by simply analyzing the cash flows of the derivative under different sets of assumptions (e.g., the DJIA goes up 15%).