Definitions

Auction call

Collateralized debt obligation

For other subjects with the same abbreviation, see CDO.

Collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) are an unregulated type of asset-backed security and structured credit product. CDOs are constructed from a portfolio of fixed-income assets. These assets are divided by the ratings firms that assess their value into different tranches: senior tranches (rated AAA), mezzanine tranches (AA to BB), and equity tranches (unrated). Losses are applied in reverse order of seniority and so junior tranches offer higher coupons (interest rates) to compensate for the added default risk. Since 1987, CDOs have become an important funding vehicle for fixed-income assets.

Some news and media commentary blame the financial woes of the 2007-2008 credit crunch on the complexity of CDO products, and the failure of risk and recovery models used by credit rating agencies to value these products. Some institutions buying CDOs lacked the competency to monitor credit performance and/or estimate expected cash flows. On the other hand, some academics maintain that because the products are not priced by an open market, the risk associated with the securities is not priced into its cost and is not indicative of the extent of the risk to potential purchasers. As many CDO products are held on a mark to market basis, the paralysis in the credit markets and the collapse of liquidity in these products led to substantial write-downs in 2007. Major loss of confidence occurred in the validity of the process used by ratings agencies to assign credit ratings to CDO tranches and this loss of confidence persists into 2008.

Market history and growth

The first CDO was issued in 1987 by bankers at now-defunct Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. for Imperial Savings Association, a savings institution that later became insolvent and was taken over by the Resolution Trust Corporation on June 22, 1990. A decade later, CDOs emerged as the fastest growing sector of the asset-backed synthetic securities market. This growth may reflect the increasing appeal of CDOs for a growing number of asset managers and investors, which now include insurance companies, mutual fund companies, unit trusts, investment trusts, commercial banks, investment banks, pension fund managers, private banking organizations, other CDOs and structured investment vehicles. It may also reflect the greater profit margins that CDOs provide to their manufacturers.

A major factor in the growth of CDOs was the 2001 introduction by David X. Li of Gaussian copula models, which allowed for the rapid pricing of CDOs.

According to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, aggregate global CDO issuance totaled US$ 157 billion in 2004, US$ 272 billion in 2005, US$ 552 billion in 2006 and US$ 503 billion in 2007. Research firm Celent estimated the size of the CDO global market to close to $2 trillion by the end of 2006.

Concept

CDOs vary in structure and underlying assets, but the basic principle is the same. Essentially a CDO is a corporate entity constructed to hold assets as collateral and to sell packages of cash flows to investors. A CDO is constructed as follows:

  • A special purpose entity (SPV) acquires a portfolio of credit. Common assets held include mortgage-backed securities, Commercial Real Estate (CRE) debt, and high-yield corporate loans.
  • The SPV issues different classes of bonds and equity and the proceeds are used to purchase the portfolio of credits. The bonds and equity are entitled to the cash flows from the portfolio of credits, in accordance with the Priority of Payments set forth in the transaction documents. The senior notes are paid from the cash flows before the junior notes and equity notes. In this way, losses are first borne by the equity notes, next by the junior notes, and finally by the senior notes. In this way, the senior notes, junior notes, and equity notes offer distinctly different combinations of risk and return, while each reference the same portfolio of debt securities.

A CDO investor takes a position in an entity that has defined risk and reward, not directly in the underlying assets. Therefore, the investment is dependent on the quality of the metrics and assumptions used for defining the risk and reward of the tranches.

The issuer of the CDO, typically an investment bank, earns a commission at time of issue and earns management fees during the life of the CDO. An investment in a CDO is therefore an investment in the cash flows of the assets, and the promises and mathematical models of this intermediary, rather than a direct investment in the underlying collateral. This differentiates a CDO from a mortgage or a mortgage-backed security (MBS).

The loss of an investor's principal is applied in reverse order of seniority (i.e., highest credit risk tranches to lowest). The senior tranche is protected by the subordinated security structure; thus, it is the most highly rated tranche. The equity tranche (also known as the first-loss tranche or "toxic waste") is most vulnerable, and has to offer higher coupons to compensate for the higher risk.

Apparently CDOs have been used as part of an accounting scheme which allows large financial institutions to move debt off their books by pooling their debt with other financial institutions and then bringing these debts back on to their books but now calling it an asset. This not only has allowed financial institutions to hide their losses, but has allowed them to inflate their earnings. This has the unfortunate effect of doubling potential losses book-wise.

Structures

CDO is a broad term that can refer to several different types of products. They can be categorized in several ways. The primary classifications are as follow:Source of funds -- cash flow vs. market value

  • Cash flow CDOs pay interest and principal to tranche holders using the cash flows produced by the CDO's assets. Cash flow CDOs focus primarily on managing the credit quality of the underlying portfolio.
  • Market value CDOs attempt to enhance investor returns through the more frequent trading and profitable sale of collateral assets. The CDO asset manager seeks to realize capital gains on the assets in the CDO's portfolio. There is greater focus on the changes in market value of the CDO's assets. Market value CDOs are longer-established, but less common than cash flow CDOs.Motivation -- arbitrage vs. balance sheet
  • Arbitrage transactions (cash flow and market value) attempt to capture for equity investors the spread between the relatively high yielding assets and the lower yielding liabilities represented by the rated bonds. The majority, 86%, of CDOs are arbitrage-motivated.
  • Balance sheet transactions, by contrast, are primarily motivated by the issuing institutions’ desire to remove loans and other assets from their balance sheets, to reduce their regulatory capital requirements and improve their return on risk capital. A bank may wish to offload the credit risk in order to reduce its balance sheet's credit risk. Funding -- cash vs. synthetic
  • Cash CDOs involve a portfolio of cash assets, such as loans, corporate bonds, asset-backed securities or mortgage-backed securities. Ownership of the assets is transferred to the legal entity (known as a special purpose vehicle) issuing the CDO's tranches. The risk of loss on the assets is divided among tranches in reverse order of seniority. Cash CDO issuance exceeded $400 billion in 2006.
  • Synthetic CDOs do not own cash assets like bonds or loans. Instead, synthetic CDOs gain credit exposure to a portfolio of fixed income assets without owning those assets through the use of credit default swaps, a derivatives instrument. (Under such a swap, the credit protection seller, the CDO, receives periodic cash payments, called premiums, in exchange for agreeing to assume the risk of loss on a specific asset in the event that asset experiences a default or other credit event.) Like a cash CDO, the risk of loss on the CDO's portfolio is divided into tranches. Losses will first affect the equity tranche, next the mezzanine tranches, and finally the senior tranche. Each tranche receives a periodic payment (the swap premium), with the junior tranches offering higher premiums.

A synthetic CDO tranche may be either funded or unfunded. Under the swap agreements, the CDO could have to pay up to a certain amount of money in the event of a credit event on the reference obligations in the CDO's reference portfolio. Some of this credit exposure is funded at the time of investment by the investors in funded tranches. Typically, the junior tranches that face the greatest risk of experiencing a loss have to fund at closing. Until a credit event occurs, the proceeds provided by the funded tranches are often invested in high-quality, liquid assets or placed in a GIC (Guaranteed Investment Contract) account that offers a return that is a few basis points below LIBOR. The return from these investments plus the premium from the swap counterparty provide the cash flow stream to pay interest to the funded tranches. When a credit event occurs and a payout to the swap counterparty is required, the required payment is made from the GIC or reserve account that holds the liquid investments. In contrast, senior tranches are usually unfunded since the risk of loss is much lower. Unlike a cash CDO, investors in a senior tranche receive periodic payments but do not place any capital in the CDO when entering into the investment. Instead, the investors retain continuing funding exposure and may have to make a payment to the CDO in the event the portfolio's losses reach the senior tranche. Funded synthetic issuance exceeded $80 billion in 2006. From an issuance perspective, synthetic CDOs take less time to create. Cash assets do not have to be purchased and managed, and the CDO's tranches can be precisely structured.

  • Hybrid CDOs are an intermediate instrument between cash CDOs and synthetic CDOs. The portfolio of a hybrid CDO includes both cash assets as well as swaps that give the CDO credit exposure to additional assets. A portion of the proceeds from the funded tranches is invested in cash assets and the remainder is held in reserve to cover payments that may be required under the credit default swaps. The CDO receives payments from three sources: the return from the cash assets, the GIC or reserve account investments, and the CDS premiums. Single-tranche CDOs

The flexibility of credit default swaps is used to construct Single Tranche CDOs (bespoke CDOs) where the entire CDO is structured specifically for a single or small group of investors, and the remaining tranches are never sold but held by the dealer based on valuations from internal models. Residual risk is delta-hedged by the dealer.Variants
Unlike CDOs, which are terminating structures that typically wind-down or refinance at the end of their financing term, Structured Operating Companies are permanently capitalized variants of CDOs, with an active management team and infrastructure. They often issue term notes, commercial paper, and/or auction rate securities, depending upon the structural and portfolio characteristics of the company. Credit Derivative Products Companies (CDPC) and Structured Investment Vehicles (SIV) are examples, with CDPC taking risk synthetically and SIV with predominantly 'cash' exposure.

Taxation of CDOs

CDOs are bonds issued by special purpose vehicles that are backed by pools of bonds, loans or other debt instruments. CDOs are typically issued in classes or “tranches” with some being senior to others in the event of a shortfall in the cash available to make payments on the bonds. The issuer of a CDO typically is a corporation established outside the United States to avoid being subject to U.S. federal income taxation on its global income. These corporations must restrict their activities to avoid U.S. tax; corporations that are deemed to engage in trade or business in the U.S. will be subject to federal taxation. However, the U.S. government will not tax foreign corporations that only invest in and hold portfolios of U.S. stock and debt securities because investing, unlike trading or dealing, is not considered to be a trade or business, regardless of its volume or frequency.

In addition, a safe harbor protects CDO issuers that do actively trade in securities, even though trading in securities technically is a business, provided the issuer’s activities do not cause it to be viewed as a dealer in securities or engaged in a banking, lending or similar business.

CDOs are generally taxable as debt instruments except for the most junior class of CDOs which are treated as equity and are subject to special rules.

Types of CDOs

A) Based on the underlying asset:

Note: In 2007, 47% of CDOs were backed by structured products, 45% of CDOs were backed by loans, and only less than 10% of CDOs were backed by fixed income securities.

B) Other types of CDOs include:

  • Commercial Real Estate CDOs (CRE CDOs) -- backed primarily by commercial real estate assets
  • Collateralized bond obligations (CBOs) -- CDOs backed primarily by corporate bonds
  • Collateralized Insurance Obligations (CIOs) -- backed by insurance or, more usually, reinsurance contracts
  • CDO-Squared -- CDOs backed primarily by the tranches issued by other CDOs.
  • CDO^n -- Generic term for CDO^3 (CDO cubed) and higher, where the CDO is backed by other CDOs/CDO^2/CDO^3. These are particularly difficult vehicles to model due to the possible repetition of exposures in the underlying CDO.

Types of Collateral

The collateral for cash CDOs include:

Transaction Participants

Participants in a CDO transaction include investors, the underwriter, the asset manager, the trustee and collateral administrator, accountants and attorneys. However, in 1999, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act undid the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, removing the decades-old wall between commercial banking, which was heavily regulated, and investment banking, which was not. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act did not extend significant new regulation to investment banking. Banks were allowed to get into the brokerage and insurance markets. Now more often these participants were one and the same entity, and due-diligence underlying appraisals of mortgages was forsaken over the opportunity to rake in enormous fees.

Investors

Investors have different motivations for purchasing CDO securities depending on which tranche they select. At the more senior levels of debt, investors are able to obtain better yields than those that are available on more traditional securities (e.g. corporate bonds) of a similar rating. In some cases, investors utilize leverage and hope to profit from the excess of the spread offered by the senior tranche and their cost of borrowing. This is because senior tranches pay a spread above LIBOR despite their AAA-ratings. Investors also benefit from the diversification of the CDO portfolio, the expertise of the asset manager, and the credit support built into the transaction. Investors include banks and insurance companies as well as investment funds.

Junior tranche investors achieve a leveraged, non-recourse investment in the underlying diversified collateral portfolio. Mezzanine notes and equity notes offer yields that are not available in most other fixed income securities. Investors include hedge funds, banks, and wealthy individuals.

Underwriter

The underwriter, typically an investment bank, acts as the structurer and arranger of the CDO. Working with the asset management firm that selects the CDO's portfolio, the underwriter structures debt and equity tranches. This includes selecting the debt-to-equity ratio, sizing each tranche, establishing coverage and collateral quality tests, and working with the credit rating agencies to gain the desired ratings for each debt tranche.

The key economic consideration for an underwriter that is considering bringing a new deal to market is whether the transaction can offer a sufficient return to the equity noteholders. Such a determination requires estimating the after-default return offered by the portfolio of debt securities and comparing it to the cost of funding the CDO's rated notes. The excess spread must be large enough to offer the potential of attractive IRRs to the equityholders.

Other underwriter responsibilities include working with a law firm and creating the special purpose legal vehicle (typically a trust incorporated in the Cayman Islands) that will purchase the assets and issue the CDO's tranches. In addition, the underwriter will work with the asset manager to determine the post-closing trading restrictions that will be included in the CDO's transaction documents and other files.

The final step is to price the CDO (e.g. set the coupons for each debt tranche) and place the tranches with investors. The priority in placement is finding investors for the risky equity tranche and junior debt tranches of the CDO. It is common for the asset manager to retain a piece of the equity tranche. In addition, the underwriter was generally expected to provide some type of secondary market liquidity for the CDO, especially its more senior tranches.

According to Thomson Financial, the top underwriters are Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Wachovia, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, and Bank of America Securities. CDOs are more profitable for underwriters than conventional bond underwriting due to the complexity involved. The underwriter is paid a fee when the CDO is issued.

The Asset Manager

The asset manager plays a key role in each CDO transaction, even after the CDO is issued. An experienced manager is critical in both the construction and maintenance of the CDO's portfolio. The manager can maintain the credit quality of a CDO's portfolio through trades as well as maximize recovery rates when defaults on CDO assets occur.

The asset manager's role begins before the CDO is issued. Months before a CDO is issued, a bank will usually provide financing to enable the manager to purchase some of the collateral assets that may be used in the forthcoming CDO in a process called warehousing.

Even by the issuance date, the asset manager often will not have completed the construction of the CDO's portfolio. A "ramp-up" period following issuance during which the remaining assets are purchased can extend for several months after the CDO is issued. For this reason, some senior CDO notes are structured as delayed drawdown notes, allowing the asset manager to drawdown cash from investors as collateral purchases are made. When a transaction is fully ramped, its initial portfolio of credits has been selected by the asset manager.

However, the asset manager's role continues even after the ramp-up period ends, albeit in a less active role. During the CDO's "reinvestment period", which usually extends several years past the issuance date of the CDO, the asset manager is authorized to reinvest principal proceeds by purchasing additional debt securities. Within the confines of the trading restrictions specified in the CDO's transaction documents, the asset manager can also make trades to maintain the credit quality of the CDO's portfolio. The manager also has a role in the redemption of a CDO's notes by auction call.

The manager's prominent role throughout the life of a CDO underscores the importance of the manager and his or her staff.

There are approximately 300 asset managers in the marketplace. Some collateral managers are active whilst some are nothing more than placebos where the investor will be at risk to the underlying portfolio. Asset Managers make money by virtue of the senior fee (which is paid before any of the CDO investors are paid) and subordinated fee as well as any equity investment the manager has in the CDO, making CDOs a lucrative business for asset managers. These fees, together with underwriting fees, administration{approx 1.5 - 2%} by virtue of capital structure are provided by the equity investment, by virtue of reduced cashflow.

The Trustee and Collateral Administrator

The trustee holds title to the assets of the CDO for the benefit of the noteholders (i.e. the Investor). In the CDO market, the trustee also typically serves as collateral administrator. In this role, the collateral administrator produces and distributes noteholder reports, performs various compliance tests regarding the composition and liquidity of the asset portfolios in addition to constructing and executing the priority of payment waterfall models. Two notable exceptions to this are Virtus Partners and Wilmington Trust Conduit Services, a subsidiary of Wilmington Trust, which offer collateral administration services, but are not trustee banks. In contrast to the asset manager, there are relatively few trustees in the marketplace. The following institutions currently offer trustee services in the CDO marketplace:

Accountants

The underwriter typically will hire an accounting firm to perform due diligence on the CDO's portfolio of debt securities. This entails verifying certain attributes, such as credit rating and coupon/spread, of each collateral security. Source documents or public sources will typically be used to tie-out the collateral pool information. In addition, the accountants typically calculate certain collateral tests and determine whether the portfolio is in compliance with such tests.

The firm may also perform a cash flow tie-out in which the transaction's waterfall is modeled per the priority of payments set forth in the transaction documents. The yield and weighted average life of the bonds or equity notes being issued is then calculated based on the modeling assumptions provided by the underwriter. On each payment date, an accounting firm may work with the trustee to verify the distributions that are scheduled to be made to the noteholders.

Attorneys

Attorneys ensure compliance with applicable securities law and negotiate and draft the transaction documents. Attorneys will also draft an offering document or prospectus the purpose of which is to satisfy statutory requirements to disclose certain information to investors. This will be circulated to investors. It is common for multiple counsels to be involved in a single deal due to the number of parties to a single CDO from asset management firms to underwriters.

Subprime mortgage crisis

From 2003 to 2006, new issues of CDOs backed by asset-backed and mortgage-backed securities had increasing exposure to subprime mortgage bonds. Mezzanine ABS CDOs are mainly backed by the BBB or lower-rated tranches of mortgage bonds, and in 2006, $200 billion in mezzanine ABS CDOs were issued with an average exposure to subprime bonds of 70%. As delinquencies and defaults on subprime mortgages occur, CDOs backed by significant mezzanine subprime collateral experience severe rating downgrades and possibly future losses.

As the mortgages underlying the CDO's collateral decline in value, banks and investment funds holding CDOs face difficulty in assigning a precise price to their CDO holdings. Many are recording their CDO assets at par due to the difficulty in pricing. The pricing challenge arises because CDOs do not actively trade and mortgage defaults take time to lead to CDO losses. However, in June 2007, two hedge funds managed by Bear Stearns Asset Management Inc. faced cash or collateral calls from lenders that had accepted CDOs backed by subprime loans as loan collateral. The now defunct Bear Stearns, at that time the fifth-largest U.S. securities firm, said July 18, 2007 that investors in its two failed hedge funds will get little if any money back after "unprecedented declines" in the value of securities used to bet on subprime mortgages.

Some CEOs have lost their jobs as a result of the crisis. On 24th October 2007, Merrill Lynch reported third quarter earnings that contained $7.9 billion of losses on collateralized debt obligations. A week later Stan O'Neal, Merrill Lynch's CEO, resigned from his position, reportedly as a result. On 4th November 2007, Charles (Chuck) Prince, Chairman and CEO of Citigroup resigned and cited the following reasons : "...as you have seen publicly reported, the rating agencies have recently downgraded significantly certain CDOs and the mortgage securities contained in CDOs. As a result of these downgrades, valuations for these instruments have dropped sharply. This will have a significant impact on our fourth quarter financial results. I am responsible for the conduct of our businesses. It is my judgment that the size of these charges makes stepping down the only honorable course for me to take as Chief Executive Officer. This is what I advised the Board.

The new issue pipeline for CDOs backed by asset-backed and mortgage-backed securities slowed significantly in the second-half of 2007 and the first quarter of 2008 due to weakness in subprime collateral, the resulting reevaluation by the market of pricing of CDOs backed by mortgage bonds, and a general downturn in the global credit markets. Global CDO issuance in the fourth quarter of 2007 was US$ 47.5 billion, a nearly 74 percent decline from the US$ 180 billion issued in the fourth quarter of 2006. First quarter 2008 issuance of US$ 11.7 billion was nearly 94 percent lower than the US$ 186 billion issued in the first quarter of 2007. Moreover, virtually all first quarter 2008 CDO issuance was in the form of collateralized loan obligations backed by middle-market or leveraged bank loans, not by home mortgage ABS.

This trend has limited the mortgage credit that is available to homeowners. CDOs purchased much of the riskier portions of mortgage bonds, helping to support issuance of nearly $1 trillion in mortgage bonds in 2006 alone. Investors criticized S&P, Fitch Ratings and Moody's Investors Service, saying their ratings on bonds backed by U.S. mortgages to people with limited credit didn't reflect the gaining default rate. In the first quarter of 2008 alone, rating agencies announced 4,485 downgrades of CDOs. Declining ABS CDO issuance could affect the broader secondary mortgage market, making credit less available to homeowners who are trying to refinance out of mortgages that are experiencing payment shock (e.g. adjustable-rate mortgages with rising interest rates).

See also

References

External links

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