The Credit Default Swap (CDS) market has been in the news recently, as Greece goes through the throes of imminent or not-so-imminent default. I thought it would make sense to put down my thoughts on the market:
a. What is a CDS?
A CDS allows you to buy insurance against default by a specific entity - government or corporate. Consider, for instance, the 5-year CDS against Brazilian default. On February 11, 2010, it would have cost you 137 basis points to buy this swap on the CDS market. In practical terms, if you had $ 100 million in $ denominated 5-year bonds issued by the Brazilian government, you would pay $1.37 million each year for the next 5 years for protection against default If the Brazilian government defaulted during the period, you would receive $ 100 million.
There are CDS available on more than 50 governments, dozens of quasi-government instiutions and many large corporations. You can, in effect, make your investment in any of these institutions close to riskfree by buying CDS on any of them.
One feature of the CDS market that needs attention is that there is the possibility of counter party risk on both sides. In effect, both the buyer and the seller may default. Thus, in the 5-year Brazil CDS example, the buyer may not be able to deliver $1.37 million a year for the next 5 years and the seller may not be in a position to deliver $ 100 million, in the event of default.
b. History and growth of the CDS market
The CDS market was devised by a group of bankers at J.P. Morgan as a measure to protect the bank and clients against potential default in the late 1990s. Initially, the market was a very small one, used by investors to to hedge default risk in large positions. In the last decade, the market exploded as both buyers and sellers flocked into it. By 2008, the dollar value of securities covered by Credit Default Swaps exceeded $ 50 trillion and in fact was larger than the actual bond market. Put another way, people were buying insurance against default risk in securities that did not even exist.
c. Why would anyone buy a CDS?
The answer may seem obvious. Investors will buy a CDS to protect an open position that they have in a bond with default risk. That facile answer can be challenged with an obvious riposte: if you want to take no risk, why not just buy a default-free investment in the first place. Clearly, though, the sheer volume of trading suggests that hedging is only part of the story. The other reason for buying a CDS is because you expect the default spread in an entity to widen in the near future. Thus, an investor who expects Brazil's default risk to increase in the future may buy a 5-year CDS at 137 basis points and turn around and sell it for a much higher price later, if he is right.
In fact, one critique of the CDS market is that it is less about hedging and more about speculating. The Greek and Portuguese governments have complained that the CDS markets have deepened their woes:
d. Why would anyone sell a CDS?
Again, there are two reasons. One is to operate as a broker and make money of transaction volume. If this is the rationale, you would hedge your exposure to risk by both buying and selling CDS and keeping your net exposure close to zero. The other is to speculate. If you expect the default risk in an entity to narrow quickly, you could sell the CDS at a high price and cover at a lower price.
While banks, investment banks and hedge funds are the biggest sellers of CDS, the seller does not have to be a regulated entity though the major sellers are subject to bank capitalization requirements. There is the very real danger that an entity may be tempted to sell CDS to collect cash now and worry about the potential liabilities later (AIG and Lehman come to mind...)
e. What information is in a CDS spread (and changes in it)?
The price on a CDS market is a function of demand and supply. For better or worse, it gives you a measure of what the market thinks about the default risk in an entity at a point in time. Note that this is true, whether investors are hedgers or speculators.
The overlay of counter-party risk affects the prices of CDS. This is one reason why the CDS on even default-free entities will trade at non-zero prices. When perceptions of counter-party risk rise across the board, as they did after the Lehman default, the prices of all credit default swaps will go up.
f. How can we use that information in corporate finance/valuation?
There are at least two places where the CDS market can be put to good use:
a. Country equity risk premiums: The equity risk premium for a risky emerging market should be greater than the equity risk premium for a developed market. One way to compute the additional risk premium is to compute a default spread for the riskier market and the CDS price provides a good starting (or even ending) point. In the Brazil example above, this would translate into using an equity risk premium for Brazil that is at least 1.37% (the CDS price) higher than the premium for the US. In more sophisticated versions of this approach, the 1.37% will be modified to account for additional equity market risk.
b. Cost of debt: The cost of debt for a firm can be obtained by adding a default spread for the firm to a riskfree rate. While this default spread can be difficult to obtain for many companies, we can use the CDS spread for a company (if one exists) to the riskfree rate to get to a pre-tax cost of debt.
In closing, there is useful informaton in the CDS market that we ignore at our own peril, when doing financial analyses and valuation. While there is substantial volatility in the market, the prices in the market allow us to get a sense of what investors think about default risk in entities and the price they would charge for bearing or eliminating that default risk. While it does open the door to those betting on default risk changes, it makes no sense to shoot the messenger and to ignore the message. The default risk problems faced by the Greek, Spanish and Portuguese governments are of their own doing and have been a decade in the making. Blaming the CDS market for these problems makes no sense!