Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Correction: The US Has Defaulted Before and It Can Default Again

This is a second piece on the topic of sovereign debt and ratings, by guest author Marc Joffe*. You can access his prior piece here: US Debt Ceiling Crisis: Rating the Rating Agencies.

One troubling aspect of the political debate over the debt ceiling is the constant repetition of the statement that “the US has never defaulted on its debt”. On the grounds that those who fail to learn from history are due to repeat it, I would like to set the record straight. I welcome readers to share this with colleagues with or without attribution. Fellow risk professionals and the general public deserve to know the facts. During its 235 years as a sovereign entity the United States has defaulted on three separate occasions - two of which are reported by Rinehart & Rogoff (2009) - and has also intentionally liquidated debt via inflation.

In 1782, the Treasury failed to pay interest on Revolutionary War debt. Following ratification of the Constitution, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton resumed regular debt service in 1790, but deferred some interest payments for ten years (Riley, 1978).

For several decades prior to 1933, holders of Treasury securities were contractually entitled to receive interest and principal payments in either dollars or gold. At the time, many contracts contained a “gold clause”, which enabled payees to receive proceeds in the form of gold. During the 1933 banking holiday declared by President Franklin Roosevelt immediately after his March 4 inauguration, the federal government refused requests for interest payments in gold, remitting only currency instead. Congress later ratified this action by formally invalidating gold clauses in a "Joint Resolution to Assure Uniform Value to the Coins and Currencies of the United States," passed on June 5, 1933. In 1934, President Roosevelt officially devalued the dollar by increasing the price of gold from $20.67 to $35.00. Although contemporary press accounts characterized the government’s actions as an abrogation (Wall Street Journal, 1933, May 4), Treasury securities issued in June and August of 1933 were oversubscribed and a February 1935 Supreme Court decision upheld the government’s actions. While these actions were generally portrayed today as an attempt to halt gold hoarding or end price deflation, they also appear to have had a fiscal motivation. In FY 1933, the ratio of interest expense to federal revenues reached 33.15%, the only time this ratio has exceeded 30% since the post-Civil War era. The Roosevelt administration needed more funds to implement New Deal programs and wanted the flexibility to issue new Treasury securities unimpeded by gold convertibility (Wall Street Journal, 1933, May 27). On a cautionary note, Moody’s Municipal and Government Bond Manuals from 1933 and 1934, show that all US Treasury bonds carried Aaa ratings both before and after this default (Mergent, 1933-1934).

The United States Debt-to-GDP ratio reached its modern peak of 112.7% in 1945, primarily due to war-time borrowing. Interest rates at the time were relatively low, while tax rates were relatively high. Thus interest expense accounted for only 7.79% FY 1945 federal revenues – compared to a proportion of 9.88% in FY 2010 – suggesting that this high level of debt could be serviced without great difficulty. The Debt-to-GDP ratio fell rapidly after the end of World War II, largely as a result of high inflation that followed the relaxation of wartime price controls and Federal Reserve purchases of Liberty Bonds. Thornton (1984) reports that the Federal Reserve tripled its holdings of government debt between 1943 and 1946 by agreement with the Treasury. Consumer prices rose 18.1% in calendar year 1946 and 8.8% in 1947 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2011). By FY 1948, the Debt-to-GDP ratio had dropped to 79.9%. The ratio continued to fall through the early 1970s as economic growth outpaced the accumulation of debt. The ratio stabilized in the mid-1970s and then – after being temporarily suppressed by another round of inflation – climbed through the 1980s and early 1990s. This period was also characterized by high interest rates, increasing the Treasury’s debt service costs.

Meanwhile, as reported in The Economist (2011, June 23), the US Treasury failed to redeem $122 million of Treasury bills on time after another debt ceiling debate in 1979. This episode was purely a technical default, arising from systems issues.

The ratio of interest expense to revenues achieved a recent peak of 18.43% in FY 1991. Tax increases and spending cuts in the early 1990s, followed by rapid economic growth in the late 1990s substantially improved US debt ratios. By FY 2002, interest expense had dropped below 10% of federal revenues, while publicly held debt fell to less than 35% of GDP. Persistent large deficits over the last nine years have substantially increased the nations’ Debt-to-GDP ratio, while interest payments as a proportion of revenues have remained relatively stable due to low interest rates.

In 1933, an interest to revenue ratio exceeding 30% preceded a change in the terms of Treasury securities widely regarded as a default. After World War II, the record high Debt-to-GDP ratio of 112.7% was reduced in large measure through price inflation. Budget projections from various sources suggest that these two ratios will return to their historic highs during the late 2020s and 2030s in the absence of major policy changes. If these projections are realized, history suggests that holders of Treasury instruments will be subject to substantial risk.

While inflation would undoubtedly be the politically preferred method of restoring debt ratios to sustainable levels, outright default is also possible. Since the Federal Reserve chair’s term is not aligned with that of the President or Congress, it is possible that a chair politically disconnected from elected leadership may not succumb to pressure to monetize the debt. Further, regardless of political alignment, a Federal Reserve chair may decide that the price inflationary consequences of monetizing debt are worse than the consequences of a forced restructuring of Treasury debt. Jeff Hummel (2009), the first economist to predict a Treasury default, makes some more elaborate arguments as to why the federal government might choose default over inflation.

Conclusion: The US Treasury has defaulted in the past and it has a material risk of doing so again. Absent substantive budget reforms in the current debate, it is hard to see any justification for leaving the US at AAA.

* Marc Joffe ( is a consultant in the credit assessment field. He previously worked as a Senior Director at Moody’s Analytics. This article reflects his personal opinion of sovereign rating practice. Although previously employed by Moody’s Analytics, the author no longer works at Moody’s and, when he did work there, his area of professional responsibility was software development and data collection. He had no professional experience as a ratings analyst, and no knowledge of Moody’s ratings practices beyond what is in the public record.


Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011). Table Containing History of CPI-U U.S. All Items Indexes and Annual Percent Changes From 1913 to Present.

Economist (2011, June 23). The mother of all tail risks.

Hummel, J. R. (2009). Why default on U.S. Treasuries is likely. Library of Economics and Liberty. Retrieved from

Mergent Corporation (1933, 1934). Moody’s Manual of Municipal and Government Bonds. Available online by subscription from Mergent Corporation, Fort Mill, SC.

Riley, J. C. (1978). Foreign Credit and Fiscal Stability: Dutch Investment in the United States, 1781-1794. The Journal of American History (65), 654-678.

Reinhart, C. M. & Rogoff, K. S. (2009). This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Pages 112-113.

Thornton, D. L. (1984). Monetizing the Debt. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, 66(12), 30-43. Retrieved from

Wall Street Journal (1933, May 4). Editorial: No Payment in Gold. Page 6.

Wall Street Journal (1933, May 27). Acts to Cancel Gold Clause: Administration Bill in Both Houses Seen as Move Toward Long Term Bond Issue. Page 1.

Monday, July 25, 2011

US Debt Ceiling Crisis: Rating the Rating Agencies

By guest author Marc Joffe*

News reports and punditry reveal a shocking ignorance of the role played by rating agencies in the US deficit debate. Depending on the commentator’s bias, rating agency actions have been either lionized or demonized, often inappropriately. After dispelling some unfortunate myths about rating agencies, I will offer the reader a more informed assessment of how the three dominant rating agencies are handling the debt ceiling crisis.

Commentators often confuse a credit downgrade with a prediction of default. If a rating agency downgrades an issuer from AAA to AA+, it is not predicting that the issuer will default. The rating change simply expresses the view that a default or a loss of principal/interest is more likely. Since rating scales typically have about 18 different grades, a transition from the highest rating to the second highest rating does not reflect an enormous change in risk. A downgrade from AAA to AA+ simply reflects a rating agency’s view that the credit risk of the US has gone from de minimis to very low. Thus, if a rating agency were to downgrade the Treasury to AA+ and a US bond default did not immediately follow, it would not be appropriate to say that the rating agency made an error. On the other hand, if rating agencies leave the US at AAA and it does default, that would be indicative of an error – similar to assigning AAA ratings to structured instruments that later missed payments.

While it is true that the rating agencies commenting on US creditworthiness are the same firms that assigned inaccurate ratings to mortgage backed securities a few years ago, this fact is not especially meaningful. The analysts who assign ratings to structured finance instruments and those that assess sovereign bonds are different people, working in different groups, using different methodologies. More importantly, the commercial considerations that might bias sovereign ratings are totally different from those that impact assessments of structured assets.

Ratings for mortgage backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and other asset backed instruments are purchased by a relatively small number of issuers. If a rating agency provides an “unsatisfactory” rating for a deal structured by a given issuer, the agency risks losing a sizable fee for the deal in question as well as revenue from all future deals marketed by that issuer. Thus, in the structured finance area, the reactions of a few issuers can materially affect the rating agency’s revenue.

This is not the case with sovereign ratings. Advanced economy sovereigns, such as the United States, pay little if anything for their ratings. Thus, all the concerns about the so-called issuer pays model do not apply to sovereign ratings. At the same time, other commercial considerations might impact them. For example, since rating agencies are regulated by the United States, European Union and other sovereign authorities, they may have reason to fear retaliation from their regulators. While such fears appear to have a basis in Europe where official criticism of the agencies has been frequent, we have yet to see a similar problem in the United States.

Second, sovereign rating changes may impact other ratings in ways that create commercial challenges for rating agencies and investors. Given the dependence of numerous bond-issuing entities on the US government, a Treasury downgrade may trigger a large number of municipal, corporate and structured finance issuer downgrades as well. This cascade of downgrades would impose challenges on a rating agency’s internal systems, staff research skills and relationships with affected issuers.

To the extent that certain institutional investors are restricted to investing in AAA securities, a Treasury downgrade would result in the forced liquidation of many assets. Institutional investors – who often purchase research, data and analytics from ratings firms – may react negatively to such a scenario. Moreover, such portfolio changes could substantially impact interest rates. If these interest rate changes are blamed on the rating agencies, they may suffer reputational consequences.

Such concerns may unduly retard rating changes that appear justified by the issuer’s credit status. In this connection, I am reminded of the Enron situation in late 2001. Back then, the concern was that downgrading Enron to a speculative grade rating would effectively shut the firm out of the credit market and thereby force it into bankruptcy – which is precisely what happened when the belated downgrades were announced.

I characterize the Enron downgrades as “belated” because they occurred long after the firm was identified as a “junk” issuer by quantitative credit models, like the one marketed by KMV Corporation –now owned by Moody’s. Since computer models do not worry about commercial implications of their calculations, they promise to provide more instantaneous and less biased credit assessments than human rating analysts can. While quantitative models for corporate and structured instruments are quite common, relatively little progress has been made in modeling municipal and sovereign risk. (One notable exception is Kamakura Corporation’s sovereign model, released in 2008.)

As with Enron, major rating agency admonitions about US Treasury creditworthiness have been late. Official warnings about the long term sustainability of the federal budget due to population aging date back to the early 1990s. In 2006, Boston University economist Laurence J. Kotlikoff warned that the US was headed toward bankruptcy. In 2009, SR Rating, a Brazilian rating agency assigned the US a rating of AA. This was followed in 2010 by Dagong, a Chinese rating agency, which downgraded the US from AA to A+ last November. Earlier this month, Egan Jones, a small US-based rating agency that employs an investor pays model downgraded the US from AAA to AA+.

Within the last few years, US debt ratios have clearly diverged from comparable AAA sovereigns such as Canada and Australia. For example, the CIA World Fact book shows that in 2010 the ratio of publicly held debt to GDP was 59% in the US, compared to 34% in Canada and 22% in Australia. These other two countries are also less exposed to the consequences of population aging issues and they shoulder a smaller military burden than the United States, so it is difficult to see why all three countries merit the same rating in systems that have 18 distinct credit grades.

Finally, the parliamentary system employed by other Western democracies is better equipped to address fiscal stress than the divided government we have in the US. In a parliamentary system like that of the UK, a single party or a coalition can more readily obtain full control of all the levers of power and use them to implement unpopular changes at the beginning of its term (this is less true in parliamentary democracies that have large numbers of significant parties and thus weaker governing coalitions). In the US, with its more frequent elections, division of responsibility between two houses of Congress and an Executive branch often held by opposing parties and the risk of Senate filibusters, fiscal consolidation is far more difficult. This disadvantage has been exacerbated in recent decades as bipartisanship on many issues has given way to party polarization. These issues of governmental effectiveness should be a part of any comprehensive credit assessment of US Treasury securities.

One justification for maintaining the US AAA rating in spite of these concerns has been refuted by the current crisis. The argument is that since the US manages the world’s reserve currency it is somehow insulated from default. Unfortunately, the US dollar’s reserve status has been under attack for several years, and is not guaranteed to persist over the 30-year term of the longest dated Treasury instruments. Further, the reserve currency argument implicitly assumes that the Federal Reserve would monetize Treasury debts should default risk appear. This argument ignores Fed independence, as well as the fact that the CPI indexing of many Federal benefits would impede the government’s ability to liquidate debt by printing money. Finally, I have not heard any responsible commentator suggest that the government address a failure to raise the debt ceiling by paying creditors with newly created money, so clearly reserve currency status provides no refuge in the current scenario.

While all three major rating agencies have been late to the downgrade party, there are notable differences among them in their handling of recent events. In my view, S&P has performed the best. They were first to take any action, assigning a negative outlook to US Treasury securities on April 18, 2011. Further, S&P has correctly maintained that a debt ceiling increase without meaningful budget reforms would still merit a downgrade. As suggested earlier, the long term US fiscal imbalance has been known to policymakers for 20 years. If a political crisis like the one we are currently experiencing is unable to motivate elected officials to substantially reduce the gap between out-year revenues and expenditures, it is hard to see what will, thus leaving a future default as a significant risk.

Moody’s recent pronouncements have also been largely on target, but the agency was slower off the mark. On February 24, 2011, Moody’s predicted that the debt limit would be raised before the ceiling was reached - on May 16. On June 2, the agency observed that the risk of default due to a failure to raise the debt limit was a rising but still very small risk. Finally, on July 13, Moody’s placed the US credit rating on watch for possible downgrade and also noted that it would assign a negative outlook if substantive deficit reductions were not implemented together with a debt ceiling increase. Although welcome, Moody’s stance is not as strong as that taken by S&P. While Moody’s is threatening to maintain a negative outlook in the absence of substantive action, S&P has warned of an outright downgrade.

Another worry about Moody’s position is that the firm is frequently represented in the media by economists from Moody’s Analytics, such as Mark Zandi. Moody’s Analytics is a distinct subsidiary within Moody’s Corporation from the rating issuing entity, Moody’s Investors Service. Consequently, Zandi and others at Moody’s Analytics are not involved in the sovereign ratings process, a fact often lost on interviewers. Further, Moody’s Analytics economists have previously been on record as supporting fiscal stimulus measures including the recent temporary reduction in the Social Security tax rate. While Keynesian policies may be justified on other grounds, they are not consistent with maximizing a sovereign issuer’s creditworthiness at least in the short run. It is thus unfortunate when the public gets the impression that Moody’s Analytics economists are somehow representing the views of the rating agency.

Finally, it has been disappointing to see the third rating agency joining the discussion so late. In a report dated June 8, 2011, Fitch stated that it would place the US on negative watch on August 2nd if the debt ceiling was not raised and suggested that outright downgrades would occur only in the event of an actual failure to pay scheduled interest or principal. The idea that a default would be needed to trigger a downgrade negates the value of credit ratings. If credit ratings are not supposed to hold predictive content, it is hard to see why investors would need them.

In short, the leading credit rating agencies are belatedly awakening to the fact that a dysfunctional political system and long term fiscal imbalances have created significant risks for Treasury investors. Now these agencies, led by S&P, are beginning to provide investors with insight into the unfolding situation, largely free of the biases that affected them during the 2007-2008 credit crisis. That said, investors would ultimately be better served by measures of advanced economy sovereign risk that react more quickly and are less burdened by potential conflicts.

* Marc Joffe ( is a consultant in the credit assessment field. He previously worked as a Senior Director at Moody’s Analytics. This article reflects his personal opinion of sovereign rating practice. Although previously employed by Moody’s Analytics, the author no longer works at Moody’s and, when he did work there, his area of professional responsibility was software development and data collection. He had no professional experience as a ratings analyst, and no knowledge of Moody’s ratings practices beyond what is in the public record.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Covering and Uncovering the World of TruPS CDOs

The Philadelphia Fed’s June 2011 working paper provides a welcome addition to the conspicuously deficient body of literature on the topic of TruPS CDOs.

The researchers were quite thorough in detailing the creation of these notoriously opaque, private vehicles. They also tackled the valuation of these deals in an effort to estimate foreseeable losses on the tranches issued. This is no mean feat, but rather an academic exercise which helps readers and researchers better appreciate the limitations suffered by outside parties, like regulators, who are trying to get a handle on this market. For example, the researchers were limited to “[working] with information trustees make public to potential investors (or researchers like us).”

The authors nevertheless honed in on several key aspects of the market, some of which haven’t been adequately addressed in prior publications.

In terms of the creation of these instruments, they note the multidimensional roles being played by market participants who constructed these deals. They remark that several “dealers also serve as collateral managers and consult with banks on valuations” and they comment on the curious role of rating agencies whose “primary motive is to generate business.”

The researchers were also alive to the fact that “early TruPS CDO investors were relying largely on rating agency ratings and surveillance from the dealers responsible for issuing TruPS CDOs.” (Oddly, they too fall back on Moody’s data as the sole point of comparison for validating their own model – seemingly indicative of the situation many are and were faced with, in which one is forced to rely heavily on the rating agencies given their heightened access to data, and the presumed advantage rendered by this informational asymmetry. Unfortunately, given the lack of predictive content of ratings in this realm, it is perhaps difficult to find comfort in the fact that their model's outputs are similar to those produced by Moody’s.)

The researchers were also critical of the rating agencies’ assumptions and methodological changes, especially on the correlation side. They point out that “the model used to justify the zero inter-regional correlation assumption, apparently critical to the development of the single industry TruPS CDO market, was based on a model developed for an unrelated class of securities.”

They also track the increasing correlation between underlying banks over time, and admit their concern that despite the realization and disclosure of the increased concentrations, “rating agencies made few, if any, adjustments for this fact nor did we find evidence that issuers or other analysts expressed any concerns until after the TruPS CDO market came undone.” We would have liked to have seen them analyze, more critically, the validity of changes made in recovery rate assumptions over time.

Analytically, their model puts forth a number of interesting data points, not the least of which is a deferral-to-default cure rate of 2.3%. We believe this is lower than the current market rate, but it certainly runs counter to some of the punitive assumptions being applied elsewhere when analyzing these CDOs, where deferrals are often assumed to always default, with no recovery. (See The Tripping Point for more on this.)

Importantly, the lack of accessibility to certain information hinders the quality of their projections – something the researchers appreciated and candidly disclosed. They recognize that “unfortunately, we do not have information to analyze the risk profile of small banks issuing TruPS into TruPS CDOs versus those that did not. A more thorough analysis of risks at these small banks will have to wait until more information is disclosed.”

They were also cognizant of the inherent difficulties on the data side, given the “[limited] historical performance for TruPS, particularly in a stress environment, [making] forecasting future [deferrals and defaults] more an art than a science.”

Their lack of access to the underlying names leaves them at a significant disadvantage to most investors and players in this market, who have direct access to these names. Unfortunately, they also comment that they were unable to see through to the pool level assets, leaving them unable to distinguish between deferring and defaulted assets. Their inability to look through to the asset level means they must treat all pools identically, based on their overall opinion of the future of banks. This approach leaves them open to significantly underestimating or overestimating the differences between the banks included in different pools. (The FDIC’s Supervisory Insights on winter 2010 was particularly forthcoming on the reasons why banks included in TruPS significantly underperformed other banks in this crisis. We graphed this dynamic in Adverse Selection? No Problem!)

Having advocated heavily for a Central Pricing Solution for TruPS CDOs, we warmed particularly to one part of their important conclusion, which proposed that:

"Banks should also all be disclosing their securities holdings in their investment portfolios to regulators each quarter. For these, bank regulators should follow the model adopted by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), which receives from members CUSIPs and other information on investment portfolios so that regulators can do a full evaluation of all holdings in insurers’ investment portfolios. Applying models like the one we developed to all banks’ TruPS CDO holdings would offer a consistent, independent assessment to compare with banks’ internal analyses. Exactly this type of exercise was conducted as part of the 2008 Supervisory Capital Assessment Program (SCAP), commonly referred to as the “stress tests,” and the 2011 Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review (CCAR) exercise for the largest banks. With a simple NAIC-style schedule, this type of analysis could be extended to smaller banks’ investment portfolios, with enormous gains in information and the quality and consistency of regulatory supervision."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Built to Fail CDOs 101: How Well Do You Know Your CDS Counterparty?

The Abacus CDO story of 2010 brought to the fore a worrisome scenario in which it could be argued that the arranging bank (Goldman Sachs) played two different roles at once, potentially serving one particular client (Paulson) at the expense of other clients (investors in the Abacus CDO). Goldman settled the case with the SEC for $550mm. What could be worse than participating in such a conflicted scenario? We are concerned that in a number of deals the arranging bank may have positioned itself directly against the CDO investors. In other words, the bank, like Paulson, may have been betting against its clients.

But first, let’s take a step back to explain how this all works…

A CDO is called a “synthetic CDO” when the underlying assets are “synthetically” referenced, rather than being held like physical corporate bonds. The underlying assets are often referenced by way of credit default swaps, or CDSs, and are called “reference obligations.” These CDSs may reference several types of asset classes, but in the synthetic CDO setting they typically reference either corporate debt or structured finance securities, such as commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS), residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS), or even other CDO tranches. In the Abacus deal, the reference obligations were credit default swaps struck on RMBS.

Instead of buying physical assets that pay coupons (when current), the synthetic CDO sells protection on a portfolio of reference obligations. Much like insurance contracts, the buyers of protection on each underlying CDS make periodic “premium” payments to the CDO in exchange for compensation if and when a default, or credit event, occurs with respect to the obligation being referenced.

The CDO’s immediate counterparty on each CDS – typically the arranging bank – often plays an intermediary role between the CDO and each of its CDS transactions. It buys protection from the CDO and sells protection to the end buyer. This layout allows for the CDO to focus solely on the counterparty risk (i.e., the risk that a party will fail to fulfill its obligations under the CDS agreement) of a single party – in this case the arranging bank – as opposed to that of each end buyer (of protection).

Ideally, this dynamic ought to create an environment in which the immediate CDS counterparty (the arranging bank) is neutral to the performance of the CDO as the bank is fully hedged (as long as end buyers do not default).[1]

The imposition of an intermediary CDS counterparty often masks the identity of the end buyers from those who invest in CDO notes, potentially rendering CDO investors unable to discern which parties are ultimately short their portfolio.

Goldman Sachs’s now famous Abacus CDO illustrates a serious danger that can arise from the above confusion. The argument could be made that had investors known that Paulson was the end buyer of protection on a significant portion of Abacus’ CDS portfolio, they may have reconsidered the prudence of their investment, and potentially shunned it.

Built to Fail, Profitably

But what happens if the arranging bank chooses not to off-load all positions to an end buyer? In other words, what happens if the bank retains some or all of the short exposures to the underlying reference obligations? Here, the end buyer of protection, and the immediate CDS counterparty are one and the same: the arranging bank. The bank is now effectively short the CDO.

For example, the plaintiff in re: Space Coast Credit Union vs. Barclays Capital et al argues that:
“[the] facts here leave no doubt there was clear intent to create a very large short bet through Markov against Mezzanine CDO risk”
and that:
the “Defendants were extraordinarily determined to stuff Markov [CDO] with Mezzanine CDO risk.”
Plaintiff argues that:
“most stunning of all, [the Defendant] was so intent on Mezzanine CDO failure that it custom-built $300 million of built-to-fail Mezzanine CDOs … that [the Defendant], through Markov, could then bet against.”

While we do not seek to verify the accuracy of their contention, we are keenly aware of the material conflict such a scenario would present: the arranging bank is short the securities, meaning it would be financially rewarded if those securities were to plunder. The bank would benefit from selecting poor-quality assets. At the same time, the arranging bank is selling CDO notes, supported by these assets, to its clients. If the assets fail, the bank profits at the expense of the CDO noteholders – its clients. If the assets perform well, the bank would suffer financially.

From a higher level fiduciary perspective, the bank’s financial motive would not be aligned with the well-being of its client. Nor would the bank be even indifferent to the performance of its client. Rather, the bank’s profitability would be in direct opposition to that of its client.

While their clients were losing money on the trade, how much were bank profiting?

Removing the time value of money and the default timing as inputs to the model, we can create a simple model to estimate the bank’s profits from this trade. The model assumes that 100% of the assets are synthetically referenced.

Suppose the total premiums being paid were P, and that a bank held the super senior swap, with attachment point AP. The higher the attachment point, the greater the potential for the bank to make money: if losses exceed AP, the bank's profits are capped, as the profits from its short positions mimic identically the losses from its super-senior position.

In dollar terms, suppose the deal is of size $1bn, with an average 1% credit premium (P) on the reference obligations and a super-senior attachment point (AP) of 50%.

Suppose for simplicity that all losses occur within the first year.

If losses (AL) are lower than 1%, say they’re 0%, the bank loses 1% x $1bn = $10mm. Thus, if the portfolio is well selected, the bank stands to loses up to $10mm.

But if the portfolio is poorly selected, and suffers losses over 1%, the bank cashes in handsomely. At 5% losses, the bank makes 4% of $1bn, or $40mm. At 50% losses, the super senior attachment point, the bank caps out at 49% of $1bn, or $490mm. (Profits are maxed out at the 50% AL level as, in this example, the bank holds the super senior swap.)

A bank can either lose up to $10mm for doing a really good job of diligently selecting good assets, or the bank can make as much as $490mm for selecting really bad assets. Would you expect any bank to do the former?


[1] If anything, the CDS counterparty ought to have a slight preference for the continued performance of each CDS contract, as a default would cause settlement and thereby cut short any intermediation fees it may be earning as a middle-man.