A Small Victory Lap on CPDOs

It seems that a number of Constant Proportion Debt Obligations are being downgraded or forced to delever.  This was something I thought would happen; it was only a question of when.  It’s a pity that S&P did not totally abandon its model framework for CPDOs; it is less liberal now, but not consistent with the way they rate other investments.  Here’s a trip through my thoughts on CPDOs over the last 16 months:

David Merkel
Having A Sense Of Wonder
11/7/2006 2:09 AM EST

Periodically, I gain a sense of wonder from the derivative markets. This stems from the optimism of the markets vs. my knowledge of economic history. There are risks being taken that have not worked out in the past. My current wonder-generator is the CPDO [Constant Proportion Debt Obligation] market. With a CPDO, you leverage up a basket of investment grade credits, in an effort to earn a certain amount over the life of the CPDO. {Note: the CPDO is rated AAA, but the average of the underlying credits is rated weak single-A at best.

If the deal goes well, i.e. no defaults, it delivers early, and risk decreases. If defaults occur, the structure levers up more in an effort to make back what has been lost, up to a 15x leverage limit. After that, the CPDO rapidly takes on losses.

This structure is notable, because it attempts to achieve risk reduction for free, the same way the stock managers tried to do so in the mid-80s with dynamic portfolio management. It has no external guarantors, nor subordination.

The rumor at present is that these new CPDOs are leading to a tightening in the credit default swap market. Spreads are tight as a drum, so I can see the effect, if true.

Position: None, but I always get concerned when market players try to get risk control for free. Off-loading risk is never free on average.

David Merkel
Call It Complacency
11/7/2006 3:58 PM EST

Be sure and look at Tony’s blog post, “Default Insurance Costs at New Low.” I checked the other Dow Jones CDX North America Investment Grade Indexes, and yes, they also are at all time tight levels. Tony cites the spread from the newest one. Should we be worried? A little. As I noted in my post from this morning, some of this tightness is due to the CPDO market. They have to suck in a lot of long credit exposure to issue these, which puts downward pressure on spreads.

But bottoms in the stock market are an event. Tops are a process. Credit spreads are tight for long periods during the bull phase, and very fat for short periods during the bear phase. (Can I have BBB spreads in the 400s again, please?) Same for implied volatility… the VIX spikes during equity and credit market panics, but lolls around at low levels during the bull phase. This is complacency.

Trouble is, complacency can last a looong time, and many fixed income and equity managers don’t have the luxury of saying, “I think I’ll just stay in T-bills for now.” The greed of those they invest for (or their actuarial funding targets) force them into risk, often at bad times. The good times end when cash flow is insufficient to refinance marginal assets. Typically that’s three years after the issuance of debt deals that should never have been done, but in this environment, there is so much private equity amd vulture capital around that I don’t see many troubled assets not getting financing.

The party will continue a while longer. Oh look, there are the hedge fund-of-funds at the head of the Conga line, followed by the CDO equity managers, the investment banks, the credit hedge funds, and the cash bond market at the tail. What a party!

PS — I think it is irresponsible of the rating agencies to assign AAA ratings to securities like these CPDOs that are composed of BBB and single-A paper, and do not have any guarantor or subordination to protect the creditworthiness. This is akin to thinking that a martingale method, like doubling down, will protect you from loss in Vegas. It might most of the time, but you lose big when it doesn’t work.

Position: none

David Merkel
More Information on CPDOs
11/9/2006 12:25 AM EST

I’ve gotten numerous pings since my initial posts on CPDOs [Constant Proportion Debt Obligations]. This post is designed to correct a few errors, and explain how we as equity investors might profit from a potential disaster here. My first posts were based off what I read in a few blogs. They got a few things wrong, so I am correcting what I wrote. The structure levers up investment grade credit fifteen times, allowing the purchaser to buy a bond with a coupon two percent (or so) higher than Treasuries, with a AAA rating. What a deal; it is difficult to find AAA bonds yielding 0.5% more than Treasuries. (Ignoring odd beasts like CMBS IOs, etc.) I have seen reports that $1.0-1.5 billion of these have been created in the recent past, which means around $20 billion of credit exposure has been absorbed, depressing credit spreads over the last month.

I suggested in my earlier writings that the structures could only allow for 15x leverage, but they can go higher if the deals go badly at first. They only unwind and take losses if the market value of the underlying assets would drop down to a threshold level, say, around 90%-94% of par. That’s not to say that losses are limited to 6%-10%. The losses could be worse if the market is moving against them as they liquidate.

Now, how to profit? There will be some sort of crisis from CPDOs; after all, the buying in order to establish these securities has been characterized by some as a panic. At some point, there will be a situation where there is a default on one or more of the companies in one of the CPDOs. If it is severe enough, at that time, the CPDOs will have to deliver, and that will push credit spreads wider, and stock prices lower.

Since the companies involved are all big capitalization companies, we can watch the price and volume patterns on the S&P 500 Spyder, and look for where volume is cresting, while price is trough-ing, and take a long position after the crisis. Watch the VIX. When it spikes in a situation like this, there will be profits from going long equity exposure.

If it means anything, I used strategies like this in 2001-2002 to generate profits when things were going crazy. These strategies will work again when the CPDOs fail. I can’t say they will fail soon; I just know they will fail, as Dynamic Portfolio Management did in 1987.

Position: None

David Merkel
Dominion & CPDOs
12/20/2006 12:47 AM EST

I’m not alone on not liking what Moody’s and S&P have done on constant proportion debt obligations [CPDOs]. Now a rival rating agency, Dominion, better known for rating Canadian debt, has weighed in on the issue with skepticism. I’m annoyed at the irresponsibility of Moody’s and S&P for two main reasons. A weak single-A, strong-BBB portfolio should have credit losses of 10-15 basis points per year on average. Unfortunately, losses tend to come in heaps for investment grade corporate debt. No losses for five years, and large losses for two years. Now these structures are levered up 9-15 times on average, so during the two loss years, we are talking about 9-10% losses of equity over a two year period. If that is not bad enough, spreads will widen during the loss period even on healthy debt, further adding to the problems.

In the old days, say, two years ago, Moody’s and S&P would have called a CPDO structure AAA once it had de-levered, not on the prospect that it is very likely to de-lever. Remember a AAA means it can survive the Great Depression, and pay principal and interest on a timely basis. I can say with certainty that a levered portfolio of weak single-A bonds can’t do what an unlevered AAA bond can do in a period of severe economic stress.

Can rating agencies be sued for malpractice? Perhaps the boards of Moody’s and S&P should spruce up their D&O coverage…

Position: none

Beyond these pieces, I had three posts here that followed the decline:

Speculation Away From Subprime, Compendium

Stressing Credit Stress

Ten Notes on Our Crazy Credit Markets

Now we may have an opportunity as some CPDOs are forced to delever, credit spreads are being forced higher.  I commented before (all too recently) that it was time to dip our toes into the waters of credit, and buy 25% of a full position, with carefully selected credits.  I think it is now time to raise that allocation to 50%.  It is time to begin taking some credit risks; spreads are discounting a lot of unfavorable future news, and it is time to take advantage of it.  Is the current news gloomy?  You bet, and I can tell you that at the end of many days in mid-2002, I would hold my head in my hands in disbelief at the carnage.  But good credit investors must invest when the spreads are wide, and give up income when spreads are tight.

As for the 2002 carnage, I sent Cramer e-mails on the bond market back then, and this CC post recounts one of them, where Cramer used one of my e-mails for a post (he did that twice in 2002):

David Merkel
Cycling Through Cycles
2/1/05 2:54 PM ET
If you haven’t read it yet, please read Cody’s piece, “The Nature of Feedback Loops.” I do a lot with this for two reasons. First my investment methods lead me to rotate sectors, and all mature businesses are cyclical; they just aren’t all on the same cycle. Second, the insurance industry is very cyclical. I spend most of my time analyzing trends in pricing power.At cycle peaks and troughs, I tend to stop looking at quantitative data, and look for anomalous behavior that might hint that the cycle is changing. No one rings a bell at the top or bottom, and you can never get tops and bottoms exactly, but sometimes people behave funny near turning points. Greed and fear get excessive, and then people do foolish things. As an aside, before I wrote for RealMoney, I would drop Jim Cramer notes on the corporate bond market. This article resulted from one of my missives. There was still five months of craziness remaining, but I kept my trading discipline in 2002, though I sometimes wondered if I was sane. At the turns in July and October, some of my best brokers called me in a panic, saying that there were no bids in the market and many sellers. Implied equity volatility had gone through the roof.

What to do? I got out the liquidity that I reserved for such occasions and put out lowball bids for medium-quality bonds. By the time I used up all my liquidity in the early afternoon, the market had turned. Nerve-wracking, but it really made for good performance in a horrible year.

For more of my thoughts on applying cycles to investing, you can read my piece, “Evolution of an Investment Style.”


Anyway, buying credit now is a “pain trade.”  It is time to selectively take advantage of wide spreads if your investment mandate allows for it.