If you were to read Matt Levine’s excellent newsletter regularly, you might hypothesize that the market for Credit Default Swaps (CDS) is dying. Every other day, we see news of either engineered defaults (companies being asked to default by CDS holders in exchange for cheap loans in the next round), transfer of liability from one legal entity to another (parent to subsidiary or vice versa), “orphaning” of CDSs (where on group company pays off debt belonging to another) and so on.
So what was once a mostly straightforward instrument (I pay you a regular stream of money, and you pay me a lumpsum if the specified company defaults) has now become an overly legal product. From what seemed like a clever way to hedge out the default risk of a loan (or a basket of loans), CDSs have become an over-lawyered product of careful clauses and letters and spirits, where traders try to manipulate the market they are betting on (if stuff like orphaning or engineered default were to happen in sports, punters would get arrested for match-fixing).
One way to think of it is that it was a product that got too clever, and now people are figuring out a way to set that right and the market will soon disappear. If you were to follow this view, you would thin that ordinary credit traders (well, most credit traders work for large banks or hedge funds, so not sure this category exists) will stop trading CDSs and the market will die.
Another way to think about it is that these over-legalistic implications of CDSs are a way by the issuer of the debt to make money off all the side bets that happen on that debt. You can think about this in terms of horse racing.
Horse breeding is largely funded by revenues from bets. Every time there is a race, there is heavy betting (this is legal in most countries), and a part of the “rent” that the house collects from these bets is shared with the owners of the horses (in the form of prizes and participation fees). And this revenue stream (from side bets on which horse is better, essentially) completely funds horse rearing.
CDSs were a product invented to help holders of debt to transfer credit risk to other players who could hedge the risk better (by diversifying the risk, owning opposite exposures, etc.). However, over time they got so popular that on several debt instruments, the amount of CDSs outstanding is a large multiple of the total value of the debt itself.
This is a problem as we saw during the 2008 financial crisis, as this rapidly amplified the impacts of mortgage defaults. Moreover, the market in CDSs has no impact whatsoever on the companies that issued the debt – they can see what the market thinks of their creditworthiness but have no way to profit from these side bets.
And that is where engineered defaults come in – they present a way for debt issuers to actually profit from all the side bets. By striking a deal with CDS owners, they are able to transfer some of the benefits of their own defaults to cheaper rates in the next round of funding. Even orphaning of debt and transferring between group companies are done in consultation with CDS holders – people the company ordinarily should have nothing to do with.
The market for CDS is very different from ordinary sports betting markets – there are no “unsophisticated players”, so it is unclear if anyone can be punished for match fixing. The best way to look at all the turmoil in the CDS market can thus be looked at in the same way as horse rearing – an activity being funded by “side bets”.