Rich Newman

September 6, 2012

Credit Default Swap Index Trading: Bid/Offer, Rolls, Roll Conventions

Introduction

I apologize in advance for the rather esoteric subject here, but I have in the past done some work with our CDS index trading desk.  The roll dates for the US indexes are once again approaching.  Immediately after the roll date we trade both the old index, the new index, and the roll between them.  The terminology, and what we are buying and selling, confuses us poor developers no end.  It is immensely confusing because of the price/spread conventions.

At the last roll I wrote some notes on this, which I’m publishing here to help anyone else struggling with the market.

This article focuses on the US CDS index trading market, and uses the Markit CDX indexes as examples.  This isn’t a general introduction to those markets, rather it’s a discussion of the mechanics of the market and what the bid/offer spreads actually mean.

I have written a general introduction to the credit default swap market.  Markit themselves have guides to the index markets (see the Primers section).

CDS Index Pricing

Some indexes trade on spread (e.g. CDX IG), some on price (e.g. CDX HY).  The series of articles on credit default swaps include a description of what these terms mean.

Indexes That Trade On Spread

In many ways spread is easier to think about.  In March 2012 some real prices quoted by a dealer were 90.0/90.5 for the CDX NA IG 18 index, 84.25/85.0 for the CDX NA IG 17, and 5.50/5.69 for roll.  I explain what these numbers actually mean below.

The Index Bid/Offer When Trading on Spread

The 18 price of 90.0/90.5 means that as a customer we pay the equivalent of a running premium of 90.5 to buy protection against defaults in the index, we receive 90.0 to sell protection.  Of course we don’t actually pay that premium, we pay a fixed premium of 100 and an upfront fee that adjusts for the difference to the quoted spread of 90.5.

As a customer we always buy at the offer, and sell at the bid.  Here we are buying protection at the offer (90.5).  So for a customer to ‘buy’ here means to buy protection.

The Roll When Trading On Spread

A roll trade is designed to swap a position in the old index into a position in the new index.  So you will sell protection in the old index and buy it in the new index, or vice versa.

The roll was trading at 5.50/5.69.  When you ‘buy the roll’ you, as usual, buy at the offer (at 5.69).  By convention for securities trading on spread you are buying protection on the new series (the 18), selling it on the old series (the 17).  I’m swapping a ‘long’ (bought protection) position in the 17 for a long position in the 18.

However, for reasons we shall see later it’s easier to think about bid and offer here.  If I buy the roll I’m trading at the offer price (5.69): I’m lifting the offer.  When I do that I’m also trading at the offer price for the 18, but trading at the bid price (hitting the bid) for the 17.

To calculate what trades you enter into at what prices if you trade the roll, you start with the 18 and work out the 17 from the roll spread.  You subtract the roll spread from the 18 price.  Note that this applies to indexes that trade on spread only: see below.

In this case if I buy the roll, I’m buying the 18 at the 18 offer (90.5) and calculate the 17 bid as 90.5-5.69 = 84.81.  Note that this is a better price for me than the actual outright 17 bid (84.25): I effectively receive premium at 84.81 instead of 84.25.

Note also that I haven’t crossed the spread on the 17: I’m trading at an implied 17 bid of 84.81 but this is still less than the offer of 85.00.  For obvious reasons this is an important check for a trader.

If I sell the roll at 5.50, I’m selling the 18 (at 90.0) and the implied 17 offer is 90.0-5.5 = 84.5, again a better price to me than the outright price of 85.0.

Indexes That Trade On Price

The CDX HY index trades on price.  In March 2012 some real prices quoted by a dealer were 97.56/97.75 for the CDX NA HY 18 index, 98.75/98.94  for the CDX NA HY 17 index and 1.19/1.31 for the roll.

The Index Bid/Offer When Trading On Price

Here buy protection/sell protection is reversed from above because of the way the index is quoted.  The 18 price of 97.56/97.75 means that as a customer I still ‘buy’ at the offer (97.75).  However, now this number is used to calculate my upfront fee directly, rather than referring to a notional spread over the life of the trade.  As discussed in my earlier article, the calculation is 100-price = points, and points is the percentage we apply to the notional to calculate the fee.

For the dealer to make money the customer has to pay more to buy protection than they would receive to sell protection.  Here if I ‘buy’ at 97.75 the associated fee is 2.25% of the notional, if I ‘sell’ at 97.56 the associated fee is 2.44% of notional.

What this means is that I’m actually buying protection at the bid (97.56) and selling protection at the offer (97.75), which is the reverse of trading on spread.

So for the HY index we are quoting ‘like a bond’.  If I buy the 18s at the offer (97.75) this is like entering a long bond position (buying a bond), going short protection.

To recap, the percentage fee I actually pay is 100 minus the quoted spread, so for the 18s this is 2.44/2.25.  So I receive 2.25 if I sell protection, pay 2.44 if I buy protection (percent of the notional).

The Roll When Trading On Price

The roll was trading at 1.19/1.31.

If I lift the offer on the roll (1.31) then I’m lifting the offer on the 17 and hitting the bid on the 18 (97.56).  Note that’s the reverse of what I did above for the IG.  This is just the convention: I explain why it’s the convention below.

However this is the SAME trade as lifting the offer on the roll for the IG in terms of buying/selling protection: I’ve sold protection on the 17, bought protection on the 18.

As for the IG we derive the 17 price for the roll from the 18 price and the roll spread.  Here we add.  Again I explain why this is the convention below.

So if I lift the offer on the roll I’ll calculate the implied 17 offer price by adding the roll offer price to the 18 bid price.

That is, the implied 17 = 97.56 + 1.31 = 98.87.  So we’ve sold protection on the 17 at 98.87, which means we receive more upfront fee than if we’d just lifted the offer on the outright 17 (98.94): remember we actually receive 100 minus the value here.  So the customer again gets a better deal by trading the roll than by trading the two outrights.

Note also we haven’t crossed the spread for the 17 (98.75 < 98.87 < 98.94).

Summary of Calculations When You Trade a Roll

Trading on Spread

New index 90.0/90.5

Roll 5.50/5.69

Implies

Customer buys roll (lifts offer), old index bid price = 90.5-5.69 = 84.81 (old bid = new offer – roll offer)

Customer sells roll (hits bid), old index offer price  = 90.0-5.50 = 84.5 (old offer = new bid – roll bid)

Trading on Price

New index 97.56/97.75

Roll 1.19/1.31

Implies

Customer buys roll (lifts offer), old index offer price = 97.56+1.31 = 98.87 (old offer = new bid + roll offer)

Customer sells roll (hits bid), old index bid price = 97.75+1.19 = 98.95 (old bid = new offer + roll bid)

Explanations for the Roll Conventions

The first thing to note is that in general it costs more to buy protection and you receive more if you sell protection in the newer index.  This is because the protection is for six months longer.  You may also have already had defaults in the old index so fewer names are being covered.  However, the index constituents are revised to include more liquid and better-quality credits and this can offset this effect to some extent.

Roll Spread Convention

This means that if you are trading on spread (new index spread- old index spread) is positive, because the new spread is larger, regardless of buy protection/sell protection.   We want to quote a positive spread, so we make that the calculation for our roll spread.

If you are trading on price then things are reversed:  (old index price – new index price) will be positive, so we make that our roll spread.  This is because the upfront fee is larger for the new index (it costs more to buy protection), so the actual price we quote is smaller for the new.

Hence the difference in the roll calculations: if trading on spread to get the old index spread we subtract the roll spread from the new index spread, if trading on price to get the old index price we add the roll spread to the new index price.

Bid/Offer Convention

The bid/offer conventions now follow from the above.  For both price conventions we will always have one trade at the bid and one at the offer in a roll.  We are always buying one index and selling the other.  There are alternative ways of quoting to those described above.  However, if we quote with the conventions described above we always have offer greater than bid, and are always buying protection on the newer index if we buy the roll, so it makes sense to do it this way.

Conclusion

I warned you it was confusing: hopefully this article at least gives some idea of what’s going on.

August 8, 2011

A Beginner’s Guide To Credit Default Swaps (Part 4)

Introduction

This post continues the discussion of changes in the credit default swap (CDS) since 2007.  Part 2 and part 3 of this series of articles discussed changes in the mechanics of CDS trading.  This part will discuss changes around how credit events are handled, and future changes in the market.

Changes in the CDS Market re Credit Events Since 2007

  • Determination committees (DCs) have been set up to work out if a credit event has occurred, and to oversee various aspects of dealing with a credit event for the market.  A ‘determination committee’ is simply a group of CDS traders of various kinds, although overseen by ISDA (the standards body). The parties to one of the new standard contracts agree to be bound by the committee’s decisions.
  • Auctions are now conducted to determine the price to cash-settle credit default swaps when there is a credit event.  For this we need to determine the current price of the bonds in default.  To do this we get a group of dealers to quote prices at which they are prepared to trade the bonds (and may have to), and then calculate the price via an averaging process.  This can get quite complicated.  The determination committees oversee these auctions.
  • Classes of events that lead to credit events have been simplified.  In particular whether ‘restructuring’ is a credit event has been standardized (although the standards are different in North America, Asia and Europe).  ‘Restructuring’ means such things as changing the maturity of a bond, or changing its currency.
  • There is now a ‘lookback period’ for credit events regardless of when a CDS is traded.  What this means is that credit events that have happened in the past 60 days (only) can trigger a contract payout.  This simplifies things because the same CDS traded on different days is now treated identically in this regard.

Terminology and a Little History

The changes described so far in this article were introduced in 2009.  For North America, which went first, this was known as ‘CDS Big Bang’.  The standard contract terms thus introduced were known as the ‘Standard North American CDS Contract’ or ‘SNAC’ (pronounced ‘snack’).  The later changes in Europe were known as the ‘CDS Small Bang’The final standardization of Asian contracts occurred later still.

Much more detail on all of this can be found on the links to the excellent MarkIt papers above.

Future Changes

Further standardization in the credit default swap market will occur as a result of the Dodd-Frank Act in the USA. This mandates that standard swaps (such as standard CDS) be traded through a ‘swap execution facility’ (SEF). It further mandates that any such trades be cleared through a central clearing house.  Europe is likely to impose a similar regulatory regime, but is behind the United States.  More detail on SEFs and clearing houses is below.

The primary aims of these changes are:

1/ Greater transparency of trading. Currently many swaps are traded over-the-counter with no disclosure other than between the two counterparties. This makes it different to assess the size of the market, or the effects of a default.

2/ Reduced risk in the market overall from the bankruptcy of one participant.

The exact details of these changes are still being worked on by the regulators.

Swap Execution Facilities (SEFs)

At the time of writing it’s not even clear exactly what a ‘SEF’ is.  The Act defines a SEF as a “facility, trading system or platform in which multiple participants have the ability to execute or trade Swaps by accepting bids and offers made by other participants that are open to multiple participants”. That is, a SEF is a place where any participant can see and trade on current prices. There are some additional requirements of SEFs relating to providing public data relating to price and volume, and preventing market abuses.

In many ways a SEF will be very similar to an existing exchange. As mentioned the exact details are still being worked on.

A number of the existing electronic platforms for the trading of CDS are likely to become SEFs.

Clearing Houses

Central clearing houses are another mechanism for reducing risk in a market.

When a trade is done both parties to the trade can agree that it will be cleared through a clearing house.  This means that the clearing house becomes the counterparty to both sides of the trade: rather than bank A buying from bank B, bank A buys from the clearing house, and bank B sells to the clearing house.

Obviously the clearing house has no risk from the trades themselves.  The clearing house is exposed to the risk that either bank A or bank B goes bankrupt and thus can’t pay its obligations from the trade.  To mitigate this the clearing house will demand cash or other assets from both banks A and B.  This is known as ‘margin’.

The advantage of this arrangement is that the clearing house can guarantee that bank A will be unaffected even if bank B goes bankrupt.  The only counterparty risk for bank A is that the clearing house itself goes bankrupt.  This is unlikely since the clearing house will have no market risk, be well capitalized, and demands margin for all transactions.

Clearing houses and exchanges are often linked (and may be the same entity), but they are distinct concepts: the exchange is the place where you go to get prices and trade, the clearing house deals with the settlement of the trade. Usually clearing houses only have a restricted number of ‘members’ who are allowed to clear trades. Anyone else wanting clearing services has to get them indirectly through one of these members.

At the time of writing there are already a few central clearing houses for credit default swaps in operation, and more are on the way.

Conclusion

Since 2007 contracts for credit default swaps have been standardized.  This has simplified the way in which the market works overall: it’s reduced the scope for difficulties when a credit event happens, simplified the processing of premium payments, and allowed similar CDS contracts to be netted together more easily.  At the same time it has made understanding the mechanics of the market more difficult.

Further changes are in the pipeline for the CDS market to use ‘swap execution facilities’ and clearing houses.

August 4, 2011

A Beginner’s Guide to Credit Default Swaps (Part 3)

Introduction

Part 1 of this series of articles described the basic mechanics of a credit default swap.

Part 2 started to describe some of the changes in the market since part 1 was written.  This part will continue that description by describing the upfront fee that is now paid on a standard CDS contract, and the impact of the changes on how CDS are quoted in the market.

Standard Premiums mean there is a Fee

Part 1 discussed how CDS contracts have been standardized.  One of the ways in which they have been standardized is that there are now standard premiums.

Now consider the case where I buy protection on a five-year CDS.  I enter into a standard contract with a premium of 500 basis points (5%).  It may be that the premium I would have paid under the old nonstandard contract for the same dates and terms would have been 450 basis points.  However, now I’m paying 500 basis points.

Clearly I need to be compensated for the 50 bps difference or I won’t want to enter into the trade under the new terms.

As a result an upfront fee is paid to me when the contract is started.  This represents the 50 basis points difference over the life of the trade, so that I am paying the same amount overall as under the old contract.

Note that in this case I (the protection buyer) am receiving the payment, but it could easily be that I pay this upfront fee (if, for example, the nonstandard contract would have traded at 550 bps).

Upfront Fee Calculation

The calculation of the fee from the ‘old’ premium (spread) is not trivial.  It takes into account discounting, and also the possibility that the reference entity will default, which would mean the premium would not be paid for the full life of the trade.  However, this calculation too has been standardized by the contracts body (ISDA).  There is a standard model that does it for us.

The Full First Coupon means there is a Fee

In the example in part 1 I discussed how I might pay for a full three months protection at the first premium payment date for a CDS trade, even though I hadn’t had protection for three months.

Once again I need compensation for this or I will prefer to enter into the old contract.  So once again there is a fee paid to me when I enter into the trade.

This is known as an ‘accrual payment’ because of the similarity to accrued interest payment for bonds.  Here the calculation is simple: it’s the premium rate applied to the face value of the trade for the period from the last premium payment date to the trade date.

That is, it’s the amount I’ll be paying for protection that I haven’t received as part of the first premium payment.  Note no discounting is applied to this.

Upfront Fee/Accrual Payment

So in summary the new contract standardization means that a payment is now always made when a standard CDS contract is traded.

Part of the payment is the upfront fee that compensates for the difference between the standard premium (100 or 500 bps in North America) and the actual premium for the trade.  This can be in either direction (payment from protection buyer to seller or vice versa).  Part of the payment is the accrual payment made to the protection buyer to compensate them for the fact that they have to make a full first coupon payment.

How CDS are Quoted in the Market

Prior to these changes CDS were traded by simply quoting the premium that would be paid throughout the life of the trade.
With the contract standardization clearly the premium paid through the life of the trade will not vary with market conditions (it will always be 100 or 500 bps in North America, for example), so quoting it makes little sense.

Instead the dealers will quote one of:

a) Points Upfront
‘Points upfront’ or just ‘points’ refer to the upfront fee as a percentage of the notional.  For example, a CDS might be quoted as 3 ‘points upfront’ to buy protection.  This means the upfront fee (excluding the accrual payment) is 3% of the notional.  ‘Points upfront’ have a sign: if the points are quoted as a negative then the protection buyer is paid the upfront fee by the protection seller.  If the points are positive it’s the other way around.

b)  Price
With price we quote ‘like a bond’. We take price away from 100 to get points:
That is, points = 100 – price.  So in the example above where a CDS is quoted as 3 points to buy protection, the price will be 97.   The protection buyer still pays the 3% as an upfront fee of course.

c)  Spread
Dealers are so used to quoting spread that they have carried on doing so in some markets, even for standard contracts that pay a standard premium.  That is they still quote the periodic premium amount you would have been paying if you had bought prior to the standardization.  As already mentioned, there is a standard model for turning this number into the upfront fee that actually needs to be paid.

Conclusion

This part concludes the discussion of the changes in the mechanics of CDS trading since 2007.  As you can see, in many ways the standardization of the CDS market has actually made it more complicated.  The things to remember are that premiums, premium and maturity dates, and the amounts paid at premium dates have all been standardized in a standard contract.  This has meant there is an upfront fee for all standard CDS, and that they are quoted differently in the market from before.  It has also meant that CDS positions can be more easily netted against each other, and that the mechanics of calculating and settling premiums have been simplified.

Part 4 of this series will examine some of the other changes since 2007, and changes that are coming.

July 19, 2011

A Beginner’s Guide to Credit Default Swaps (Part 2)

Introduction

Part 1 of the ‘Beginner’s Guide to Credit Default Swaps’ was written in 2007. Since that time we have seen what many are calling the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, and a global recession.

Rightly or wrongly, some of the blame for the crisis has been attributed to credit derivatives and speculation in them.  This has led to calls for a more transparent and better regulated credit default swap (CDS) market. Furthermore the CDS market has grown very quickly, and by 2009 it had become clear that some simple changes to operational procedures would benefit everyone.

As a result many changes in the market have already been implemented, and more are on the way. This article will discuss these changes.  It will focus primarily on how the mechanics of trading a credit default swap have changed, rather than the history of how we got here or why these changes have been made. I’ll also briefly discuss the further changes that are on the way.

Overview of the Changes

The first thing to note is that nothing has fundamentally changed from the description of a credit default swap in part 1. A credit default swap is still a contract that provides a kind of insurance against a company defaulting on its bonds. If you have read and understood part one then you should understand how a credit default swap works.

The main change that has happened is that credit default swap contracts have been standardized. This standardization falls into three broad categories:

  1. Changes to the premium, premium and maturity dates, and premium payments that simplify the mechanics of CDS trading.
  2. Changes to the processes around identifying whether a credit event has occurred.
  3. Changes to the processes around what happens when a credit event has occurred.

Items 2 and 3 are extremely important, and have removed many of the problems that were discussed in part 1 relating to credit events. However, they don’t affect the way credit default swaps are traded as fundamentally as item 1, and are arguably more boring, so we’ll start with item 1.

The Non-Standard Nature of Credit Default Swaps Previously

If I buy 100 IBM shares and then buy 100 more I know that I have a position of 200 IBM shares.  I can go to a broker and sell 200 IBM shares to get rid of (close out) this position.

One of the problems with credit default swaps (CDS) as described in part 1 of this series of articles is that you couldn’t do this.  Every CDS trade was different, and it was consequently difficult to close out positions.

Using the description in part 1, consider the case where I have some senior IBM bonds.  I have bought protection against IBM default using a five year CDS.  Now I decide to sell the bonds and want to close out my CDS.  It’s difficult to do this by selling a five year CDS as described previously.  Even if I can get the bonds being covered, the definition of default, the maturity date and all the premium payment dates to match exactly it’s likely that the premiums to be paid will be different from those on the original CDS.  This means a calculation has to be done for both trades separately at each premium payment date.

Standardization

To address this issue a standard contract has been introduced that has:

1.  Standard Maturity Dates

There are four dates per year, the ‘IMM dates’ that can be the maturity date of a standard contract: 20th March, 20th June, 20th September, and 20th December.  This means that if today is 5th July 2011 and I want to trade a standard five-year CDS I will normally enter into a contract that ends 20th September 2016.  It won’t be a standard CDS if I insist my maturity date has to be 5th July 2016.

2.  Standard Premium Payment Dates

The same four dates per year are the dates on which premiums are paid (and none other).  As a result three months of premium are paid at every premium payment date.

Note that the use of IMM dates for CDS maturity and premium payment dates was already common when I wrote part 1 of the article.

3.  Standard Premiums

In North America, standard contracts ONLY have premiums of 100 or 500 basis points per annum (1% or 5%).  In Europe, Asia and elsewhere a wider range of premiums is traded on standard contracts, although this is still restricted.  How this works in practice will be explained in part 3.

4.  Payment of Full First Coupon

Standard contracts pay a ‘full first coupon’.  What this means is that if I buy a CDS midway between the standard premium payment dates I still have to pay a full three months’ worth of premium at the next premium date.  Note that ‘coupon’ here means ‘premium payment’.

For example, if I enter into a CDS with face value $100m on 5th July 2011 with a premium of 5% I will have to pay 3 months x 5% x 100m on the 20th September.  This is in spite of the fact that I have not been protected against default for the full three months.

Note that for the standard premiums and the payment of full first coupon to work we now have upfront fees for CDS.  Again this will be explained in more detail in part 3.

Impact of these Changes

What all this means is that we have fewer contract variations in the market.  The last item in particular means that a position in any given contract always pays the same amount at every premium date: we don’t need to make any adjustments for when the contract was traded.

In fact, in terms of the amount paid EVERY contract with the same premium (e.g. 500 bps) pays the same percentage of face value at a premium date, regardless of reference entity.  This clearly simplifies coupon processing.  It also allows us to more easily net positions in credit default swaps in our systems.

Conclusion

One of the major changes in the CDS market since part 1 was written is that contracts have been largely standardized.  More detail on this and other changes will be given in part 3.

December 9, 2007

A Beginner’s Guide to Credit Default Swaps (Part 1)

Introduction

On our team at work we occasionally employ developers who know nothing about derivatives. It usually falls to me to give these guys a general introduction to the credit derivatives business. As part of that we usually have a session on what a credit default swap is and why it’s important. This article is based on what I say in that session, and as such is an attempt to explain the product to someone who knows very little about the financial services industry.


Government Bonds

It isn’t really possible to understand a credit default swap without having a basic understanding of bonds, so we’ll start with a discussion of what bonds are and why someone might invest in one.

Imagine I have some cash and I want to invest it for a long period. Furthermore assume that interest rates are high and I want to ensure I get a high rate of interest for the period. I would ideally like a fixed interest rate. One way of doing this would be to go to my bank and see what they have on offer. However, most banks don’t offer very generous fixed rate deposits, especially over long periods. They prefer to offer you a variable rate.

An alternative is to buy a bond from the government. To raise money almost all governments periodically issue these bonds. The way they work is that you give your money to the government. The government then pays a fixed rate of interest periodically (usually every six months) on the money you give them. The government does this for a fixed period, usually of several years. At the end of the fixed period they will give you your money back. The end of the fixed period is called the ‘maturity’ of the bond. The amount they pay interest on is called the ‘face value’, the ‘notional value’ or the ‘principal’ of the bond.

What makes this even more attractive as an option is the fact that there is a ‘secondary market’ for bonds. What that means is that there is someone who will buy the bond from me should I not want to hold it to maturity. This is like the stock market. You can buy stocks from individual companies when they issue them, and then (usually) sell them on a stock exchange when you no longer wish to hold the stock. In both cases the price you get will depend on market conditions at the time. Clearly the current level of interest rates will have a major impact on the price you can get when you come to sell your bond. Of course you can buy your bond in the secondary market in the first place, rather than buying it directly from the government.

Should you actually want to do this most of the major stockbrokers will also allow you to trade government bonds, although some cheap online brokers won’t.

So for example, if I look on the US TreasuryDirect site right now I can see that on the 15th August 2007 the US government issued a bond that has a maturity of 15th May 2037 with an interest rate of 5% per year. This is paid every six months (so I get 2.5% of the face value of the bond every six months).

Note that in the United States government bonds issued with a period to maturity of between ten and thirty years are called ‘Treasury bonds’, whilst government bonds issued with a period to maturity of two to ten years are called ‘Treasury notes’. However, these instruments all behave as described above, and are often just referred to as ‘government bonds’.


Corporate Bonds

It’s not only governments that issue bonds, companies do so as well. This is a way of raising money for them, the other alternative being to issue stock. These corporate bonds are typically very like the government bonds discussed above: the company will pay you a fixed interest rate on your money for a fixed period. There’s also a secondary market for these bonds as described above for government bonds.

If you are given the choice between a 10-year corporate bond issued by, say, General Motors (a car company) and a US government bond, which one would you prefer? If the interest rates were the same you’d be wise to go for the US government bond. This is because there’s almost no chance that the US government won’t pay you back your money. It’s going to take a world war or something similar for the US government to be in such trouble that it can’t repay (and in that case you’d probably have bigger worries than your bonds). However, companies can get into financial trouble, even big ones (think of WorldCom, or Enron). If a company goes bankrupt there’s a chance you won’t get all the money you’ve given them for the bond back.

For this reason companies are forced to pay a higher rate of interest on their bonds than the US government. Otherwise no-one will give them the money for their bonds. How much bigger the rate of interest has to be depends on how risky the company is perceived to be.

For example General Motors has issued a bond that matures on the 15th July 2033 paying 8.375%. Whilst this interest rate isn’t directly comparable with that on the US Treasury bond discussed above, if you do work out the numbers you will find that you are getting much more interest from the General Motors bond. This article isn’t going to go into the details of how to do this, as it isn’t strictly relevant to understanding credit default swaps.

Further Reading on Bonds

The sections above have given a very simple overview of bonds. These sections have not described how the secondary markets work, how we price bonds, what a yield is or what yield curves are. If you are interested in such things there are some more details at the links below:

http://www.investopedia.com/university/bonds/
http://www.riskworx.com/resources/Yield%20Curves_RiskWorX.pdf

Credit Default Swaps (CDS)

Suppose that we have invested in the General Motors bond mentioned above. Suppose our investment is $10,000,000. Suppose also that we have become worried that General Motors may be getting into financial trouble. What can we do about it? Obviously we could just sell our bond position in the secondary market. However, we can also enter into a credit default swap. The easiest way to think of a credit default swap is as an insurance contract. We are insuring against the possibility that a company might get into financial trouble and cause us to lose money on our bond position.

To enter into this insurance contract we have to find someone prepared to insure us. Note that this is NOT General Motors. The big banks are usually the people to go to.

What we can do is to pay the bank a periodic small amount of money known as a ‘premium’ (which is like an insurance premium). This is calculated as a percentage of the face value of the bond we are insuring against, which is $10m in our case. This amount (the $10m) is known as the ‘notional principal’. The premium is paid every few months (usually every three or six months) throughout the life of the contract.

In return for the premium the bank does nothing unless General Motors gets into financial difficulty. In that case the bank will pay us an amount equal to the amount we have lost on our bond position. This is likely to be a big sum relative to the small premiums that we will pay. Once this happens the contract will terminate. Otherwise the contract carries on for an agreed period (usually five years). In picture form this looks a bit as below:

cds.jpg

Here the Big Bank is the ‘protection seller’: it’s receiving money in return for providing protection against our bonds falling in value. Similarly we are ‘protection buyers’.

Clearly there are a few things that need to be sorted out before we enter into this contract. Since the Big Bank is going to make us a large payment if General Motors gets into financial difficulty we’d better define what ‘financial difficulty’ means very clearly. We’d also better sort out exactly how we’re going to calculate the amount that will be paid.

Physical Settlement and Cash Settlement

The amount to be paid is slightly the easier of the two to define. We know which bond we want insurance on (the one we are holding), and we know we want to get the reduction in its value as a result of General Motors getting into trouble. There are two ways of handling this. The first is known as ‘physical settlement’. Here we give the bond to the Big Bank, and the Big Bank gives us the full face value of the bond in return (i.e. the amount that was originally paid to General Motors for it). The bank will then try to dispose of the bond in the market. Note that it will be worth much less than the full face value. This is because General Motors is in difficulty and hence unlikely to pay back the full face value at maturity. So from our point of view we’ve given up our bond but been paid face value for it: we’ve been compensated for the reduction in the value.

The second method is known as ‘cash settlement’. Here we try to work out the reduction in value of the bond, and this is just paid from the Big Bank to us in cash. To work out the reduction in value usually a ‘calculation agent’ is appointed in the CDS contract. The calculation agent will go into the market and get a selection of quotes for the bond from which a price for settlement will be calculated in an agreed way. Often the calculation agent is the seller of protection (the Big Bank in our example).

Credit Events

Defining ‘financial difficulty’ is more problematic, and indeed has led to several lawsuits already. We don’t usually call it ‘financial difficulty’, by the way. It’s referred to as a ‘credit event’, or a ‘default’. We say a credit default swap contract is ‘triggered’ if a credit event occurs, meaning the Big Bank has to pay up in our example.

There are three broad categories of credit events that are put into the documentation of credit default swap contracts:

  1. Bankruptcy
    If a company goes into Chapter 11 (in the US) then that is a clear indicator that the company is in serious financial difficulty and that the bondholders may not get all their money back. This is an obvious thing to have trigger the payment in a CDS contract.
  2. Failure to Pay
    If a company fails to make payments it should be making, including coupon payments on the bonds, then this can be documented as a credit event.
  3. Restructuring
    This is where a company changes the payment schedules it makes on its bonds, usually with the agreement of the bondholders. It’s usually not to the bondholders advantage when this happens, and hence CDS contracts can be documented to cover this kind of restructuring as a credit event.

Of these, restructuring is the one that has proved the most problematic for the market. There are now four separate standard definitions for restructuring that can be used in CDS contracts.

Size of Premium Payment is Bigger if the Company is More Likely to Default

One question that has been asked is how large the premium will be in general (see the comments).

The Big Bank in our example is providing us with protection against the default of a company (General Motors).  We are paying them the premium for this protection.  Clearly if the company being referred to is more likely to default the Big Bank will want us to pay them more money.  So the premium rate is higher for riskier companies than for safe ones.

The Big Bank will decide which companies it thinks are risky, and hence what premium it should charge, based on a number of factors.  However, there’s already a market that reflects how risky a company is.  This is the bond market as described earlier in this article.  In the example there General Motors had to pay a higher interest rate on its bonds than the US Government because of the risk that the investor wouldn’t get their money back if General Motors defaulted.

Size of Premium Payment and How it Relates to Bond Prices 

Now consider the case where we buy a General Motors bond.  We then enter into a credit default swap to the maturity of the bond as well.  This acts as insurance against General Motors defaulting on the bond.  We receive interest from the General Motors bond, but pay some of it away in insurance on the credit default swap.

In simple terms we now have overall a bond position where we don’t lose anything if General Motors defaults.  If a default occurs we get our money back from the credit default swap.  We can then invest in another bond.

We can think of this as a risk-free bond position.  This is in many ways equivalent to a position in US Government bonds (which we can assume won’t default at all).  We’d expect our overall interest rate to be similar to that of a US Government bond.  Our overall interest rate is the rate on the General Motors bond less the premium on the credit default swap.

Now suppose the interest rate on a US Government bond is 5% and the interest rate on a General Motors bond of the same maturity is 8%.  We’d expect the premium on a credit default swap on General Motors for the same period to be about 3%.  Note that the 3% premium is also called the ‘spread’ on a credit default swap, since it is the spread between the government bond and the corporate bond interest rates.

Note that this is a very simplistic analysis.  It is broadly accurate but there are reasons why it doesn’t work exactly in practice.

Some Other Terminology Relating to Credit Default Swaps

(i) Reference Entity and Reference Obligation

Note above that General Motors is not directly involved in the credit default swap contract. General Motors as a company will not even know the contract exists. The contract is between us and the Big Bank. General Motors is just an entity that is referred to in the contract, and hence is known as the ‘reference entity’.

Similarly the contract refers to the specific bond we are insuring (General Motors 8.375% maturing 15th July 2033 in our example). However the bond isn’t directly involved in the contract. Indeed if the contract is cash settled we don’t even have to be holding the bond at any time: we can just enter into the CDS contract without it. The bond is just an obligation being referred to in the contract, and hence is known as the ‘reference obligation’.

You should know that, at least in technology, everyone’s favourite interview question about credit default swaps is ‘what’s the difference between a reference entity and a reference obligation?’

(ii) Bond Seniority

Bonds have a hierarchy of importance when a company is unable to pay its debts. Some bondholders will get their money back before others. (They ALL get their money back before the shareholders.) The exact place in the pecking order depends on the documentation of the bonds. Typically bonds are classified according to ‘seniority’. They are assigned to one of senior secured, senior unsecured, senior subordinated, subordinated and junior subordinated seniority categories. The list is in order of seniority: senior secured is the highest, junior subordinated the lowest. This means if we hold a senior secured bond we are more likely to get our money back if the company goes bankrupt than if we hold a junior subordinated bond.

When a company is being wound up the bondholders get paid in seniority order out of the cash that is remaining to the company. The bondholders with the highest seniority debt get paid first, then the bondholders with the next level of seniority debt, and so on. Bondholders will get paid in full in each seniority category until the money runs out. If at any stage the money is insufficient to pay the current seniority of bondholder in full, every bondholder of that seniority gets paid the same percentage of the face value of their bond.  So, for example, the most senior bondholders may get paid in full, one category of more junior bondholders will only get a percentage payout, and the most junior bondholders may get nothing.


(iii) Recovery Rates

The ‘recovery rate’ is the percentage of the face value of our bond that we get back if there’s a credit event. For example, suppose we hold $10m of bonds in a company, and it goes bankrupt. Assume we get $4m back for our bonds from the company after the bankruptcy. We would say our ‘recovery rate’ is 40% (4m/10m as a percentage).

Recovery rates are also one of the inputs into pricing a CDS contract (working out its value to either counterparty) prior to maturity. To price a CDS one of the things we need to know is how much the bond we are insuring will reduce in value if a credit event occurs. This is obviously important since it determines the size of the payment made as a result of the credit event. Clearly we can’t know exactly how much the bond will be worth after a credit event before the credit event has happened, so we estimate a recovery rate.

Most pricing methodologies estimate recovery rates in a very simplistic way: a percentage is assigned to the seniority of the debt of a company. So we might say General Motors Senior Unsecured debt has a recovery rate of 40%, and then use that number for pricing all GM senior unsecured credit default swaps.

Uses of Credit Default Swaps

As described above it sounds like the credit default swap is a very niche product since its primary use is to hedge bond positions against default. However, the credit default swap market has taken off and is huge. The reason is that there is a wide range of ways CDS can be used. In recent years pure speculation, largely by hedge funds, seems to have been the main driver of the market.

Geoff Chaplin’s excellent book ‘Credit Derivatives: Risk Management, Trading and Investing’ cites the following uses of CDS:

  • Directional Trading/Relative Trades (speculation on individual companies)
  • Debt Hedging (hedging bond positions as described above)
  • Sector/Portfolio Trades (speculation on groups of companies)
  • Income Generation (we can just sell protection and receive premium, provided we’re confident we won’t face defaults (credit events))
  • Regulatory Capital Reduction (if a bank has lent to a company that uses regulatory capital which can be reduced by buying CDS protection)

Issues

Below are a few further issues relating to credit default swaps:

  • The description of CDS as ‘insurance’ is not technically accurate. Insurance contracts are regulated in a different way, the documentation is different, and usually an insurance contract would require us to actually own the bond to be valid for a claim, which is not the case for a CDS.
  • As mentioned above, there’s no reason for either party to a CDS contract to actually be holding a bond (reference obligation) of the reference entity. CDS can be entered into purely as speculative positions. Even with physical settlement the buyer of protection can just go into the market and buy the appropriate bond at the time of a credit event, and doesn’t need to hold it through the life of the contract.
  • CDS contracts are usually not entered into with retail investors. You or I couldn’t actually execute a CDS on our bond position; we don’t have big enough positions to make it worthwhile in general. Hedge funds, pension funds, fund managers and insurance companies tend to be the counterparties to the banks on these contracts (as well as other banks).
  • Credit default swaps are usually documented such that a range of bonds can be ‘delivered’ (handed over in physical settlement or used to calculate losses in cash settlement). The text above implied that only one bond was ever relevant. The reference obligation cited in the contract simply defines the type of bond that can be delivered (its seniority). Usually any bond of the same seniority or higher seniority can be delivered. CDS can be traded without any reference obligation being cited: usually this means that any senior unsecured debt can be delivered.
  • This is a zero-cost instrument. The two parties to the contract just agree the details up front, and the contract starts without any initial payment being necessary. If you are a seller of protection you just get premium in without having to do anything, which can be attractive.

Summary

In summary, a credit default swap is a contract where one party to the contract pays a small periodic premium to the other, in return for protection against a credit event (financial difficulty) of a known reference entity (company).

This article was written in 2007.  Since then there have been a few developments in the credit default swap market.  A discussion of these developments can be found in part 2 of this series of articles.

Blog at WordPress.com.