Are Synthetic CDOs On Corporate Debt The Next Shoe To Fall?

Posted by Bull Bear Trader | 6/09/2008 09:01:00 AM | , | 0 comments »

Unfortunately, it will not be enough to suffer losses from just regular credit default swaps (CDS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDO). As reported in the WSJ, additional pain from synthetic CDO losses may be just around the corner. Synthetic CDOs have been around for a while, but have become popular in the last few years as a way for insurance companies, banks, and funds to invest in a diversified portfolio of companies without directly purchasing the bonds of the companies. While many of the problems with CDOs linked to mortgage debt have been uncovered and are currently being felt, problems with CDOs linked to regular corporate debt are now raising the interest of rating agencies.

Unlike normal CDOs, synthetic CDOs do not contain actual bonds or debt. In order to provide the normal income stream generated by CDOs, synthetic CDOs provide income by selling insurance against debt default. Each synthetic CDO typically has numerous companies with good to high "investment-grade" credit ratings. Like a normal CDO, different tranches, or levels of risk and return are sold. The tranche structure allows some investors to receive higher returns (while taking higher risk), while making it possible for others to take much less risk, but also receive lower returns. Again, much like a normal CDO, it is possible to create a higher investment grade asset (tranche) out of lower quality securities. Additional details regarding collateralized debt obligations can be found here.

Insurance companies typically purchase the higher rated senior and mezzanine tranches, while hedge funds, looking for higher return, yet willing to bear or hedge the additional risk, typically invest in the lower-rated or unrated equity tranches. As with any CDO, in order to increase the returns of the equity tranche, the banks that created the CDOs can simply include lower-grade (higher return) debt. As the credit crunch progressed, more of these lower-grade companies have defaulted on their debt, causing the CDO losses to move up to the higher tranches. Given the synthetic nature of the CDO, rating companies are now being forced to develop new methodologies that will allow them to examine synthetic CDOs.

New downgrades will surely result from this closer examination, forcing additional selling of already distressed securities, putting further pressure on the markets. Combined with higher energy costs, this should prove to be a challenging time for some companies and investors, as well as the market in general. The old saying, "may you live in interesting times," will certainly get tested as we move into the dog days of summer.