Prof. Jayanth R. Varma's Financial Markets Blog

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Prof. Jayanth R. Varma's Financial Markets Blog, A Blog on Financial Markets and Their Regulation

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Thu, 04 Dec 2008

Who creates CDOs today?

While many think that CDOs and other complex instruments contributed to the crisis, the US government has been very enthusiastic in its use of these structures. In fact, if the behaviour of the US government is any indication, CDOs seem to be part of the solution. Let me give a couple of examples.

One of the best is the bail out of Citigroup. If one looks at the term sheet for this transaction, it is clearly a CDO structure:

Now why is such a complex structure required when most of the parties involved are arms of the government itself and every reasonable person would agree that all pieces are clearly at significant risk? Clearly, the government is now abusing CDOs for the same reasons that Wall Street abused it – to fool oneself or to fool others.

As a second example, consider the terms of the restructuring of the loans to the AIG announced by the New York Fed yesterday. There is an LLC set up to buy CDOs and this has a complex structure.

My last example has nothing to do with CDOs and is not a recently designed instrument, but the consequences of some needless complexity in the design is showing up only now. Long ago the US Treasury introduced inflation indexed bonds (TIPS) whose coupons and redemptions are indexed to the consumer price index. This is close to a real risk free bond and is a useful asset class for many investors. It is also useful in creating a market implied estimate of expected inflation (simply subtract the TIPS yield from the nominal yield of an ordinary government bond).

The US Treasury however fouled up this simple and elegant instrument by adding a totally unnecessary complexity when it stated that the redemption will not drop below par even if inflation over the term of the bond turns out to be negative. This adds a European put option exercisable at par at maturity to the instrument. Under normal conditions, this option is far out of the money and can be ignored. If one wanted to be more accurate, one could assume a volatility for the inflation rate, value this put and compute the option adjusted spread (OAS) for the TIPS.

The problem is that these are not normal times. Some people believe that the risk neutral distribution of the CPI at maturity is bimodal with one peak at 80% of current levels and another at 140% of current levels. Black Scholes valuation is hardly appropriate and nobody knows what the true value is. What we do know is that the yields on two TIPS with the same residual maturity have vastly different yields (a spread of 200 basis points) depending on when they were issued and therefore how much of inflation adjustment is already impounded in the principal. Mankiw blog has an excellent discussion on this issue. Econbrowser also discusses this and I have drawn on ndk’s comments in that post for the bimodal distribution mentioned above.

There is an old joke which asks what is the difference between the godfather and the investment banker. The answer is supposed to be that the godfather makes you an offer that you cannot refuse while the investment banker makes you an offer that you cannot understand. The US government is now very clearly in the business of making offers to the rich and well connected that the tax payer cannot understand.

Posted at 18:18 on Thu, 04 Dec 2008     0 comments     permanent link