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Risk Mitigation versus Balance Sheet Chicanery

By: Tom Hannagan

In previous posts, we’ve dealt with the role of risk-based capital, measuring performance based on risk characteristics and the need for risk-based loan pricing. What about risk mitigation? Some of the greatest sins of the financial industry in the current malaise have been the lack of transparency, use of complex transactions to transfer risk and the creation of off-balance-sheet entities to house dodgy investments.

Much has been made of the role of Credit Default Swaps (CDSS) as one of the unregulated markets (and therefore guilty parts) of the current credit meltdown. The regulatory agencies and the media are aghast at the volume (peak of some $62 trillion in notional value) of CDSS that have resulted from a totally private market. The likes of Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns and AIG were all big issuers of CDSS. And the trillions of notional value of open CDSS is as much as 100 times the underlying value of the actual debt being insured.

There are problems here, but it may be worth clarifying the useful risk management activities from the potentially abusive excesses involving such instruments.

CDSS are derivative contracts whereby one party buys credit protection from a counterparty. The buyer pays a premium to the seller either in a lump sum or periodically over the life of the contract. If a credit event such as a default on a loan or a bond occurs, the seller of the CDSS pays the holder for the loss or purchases the initial debt, the reference obligation, at a pre-set price.  So, a CDSS is in effect a put option that is deep-out-of-the-money. They expire upon termination and most are never exercised. They are subject to fair-value accounting and can change in value from month to month as the credit markets premiums for similar cover moves up or down.

Banks and others can use CDSS to, in effect, adjust the nature of credit risk in their portfolios by both buying and selling such contracts.

Asset securitizations, whether mortgage-backed securities or other formulations, are in fact broken-down and re-packaged forms of assets that can be sold — transferring certain rights, values and risk to another party for payment received. They are complex and therefore mostly opaque to the general public and even many practitioners. They often involve the use of special purpose entities or trusts that can further confuse investors. These tactics have added to the difficulty of the credit crisis and the collapse of capital markets.

But, CDSS are contingent in nature and act more like fire insurance or a back-up data center. Such operational expenses are intended to control risks. The accounting treatment is complex and, to an extent (especially as regards the tax treatment), still not well defined by accounting authorities. For most banks, and most CDSS contract, the premium is amortized over the life of the contract. The premium expense entry in their general ledgers is an expense of doing business that is intended to alleviate some credit risk. We are now talking about a covered CDSS, where the bank has extended credit or invested in a debt instrument. Those who purchased uncovered CDSS are gambling on a default occurrence and used CDSS as a more cost-effective (and secretive) alternative to shorting securities. It is somewhat like a naked short.

So, a covered CDSS is ultimately an expense associated with protecting the net asset value of a credit transaction. Importantly, this expense should be included in any performance analysis or pricing of the risk-adjusted profitability of the credit obligation and/or client relationship involved. This risk mitigation exercise may be in lieu of a higher required rate or fee on an otherwise uncovered/unmitigated credit transaction, or being satisfied with a lower risk-adjusted return where the bank assumes (self-insures) all of the credit risk.

CDSS quotes/costs, similar to rate spreads on corporate bonds, are the open market’s current feeling regarding an entity’s credit quality or relative probability of default. There are some 400 or so participants in the CDSS market, including writers and dealers. Market data is published for many obligations. Even the previously risk-free Treasury securities now have CDSS quotes – and they have gone up considerably in recent months. It is always the buyers’ responsibility to decide if the quoted prices make sense or not and how such quotes should be used in evaluating credit and negotiating lending opportunities in addition to whether or not to purchase this insurance.

Finally, the quality of the seller is a consideration. There is no good reason to buy fire insurance from someone that might not be able to pay for your building if it burns down. CDSS have been private party transactions and, as stated earlier, there have been solvency problems with some of the sellers of such instruments. There is now a move under way to create a central exchange for such transactions with both regulations governing the sellers, more standardized contracts and financial backing of the instruments from the exchange. Such an exchange will address both the transparency of the process and the efficiency of market prices.

Risk mitigation strategies (risk-based pricing, portfolio risk management, credit risk modeling, etc.) need to be carried out thoughtfully. If something sounds too good to be true, it deserves a deeper look. Your bank’s credit regimen may well be better at evaluating default probability than a marketplace that is prone to feed on its own fears. But, CDSS “insurance” quotes are an outside point of reference and an option to mitigate some credit risk…no pun intended.

Here are two interesting sources of information:

BNET Business Network

Georgetown University — Law Center