Bloomberg this week had an article about how bespoke synthetic CDOs are coming back in vogue, and various people have fretted about that, because synthetic CDOs are scary, financial crisis, etc. And, sure, it’s certainly possible that the next financial crisis will be exactly like the last, only with more Cyprus.1 But today let’s talk about something tangentially related.
If you require banks to have capital based on risk-weighted assets, and if capital is expensive (at least for bankers), then you’ll have banks who want to lower the risk weights of their assets. There are many ways to do this, including buying safer assets, selling riskier assets, monkeying with models, etc., but one popular way is to buy credit protection against risky assets. The reason that this is popular is because of regulatory discontinuities: if you have $100 worth of stuff with a 200% risk weight, then you have $200 of risk-weighted assets, but if you buy protection against the riskiest $10 of it then you might go from $200 of risk-weighted assets all the way to $6.30, because the safest $90 of it might have only a 7% risk weight.
That’s a big jump. If your aim is to have capital equal to 12% of your risk-weighted assets, then your capital requirements go from $24 to like 75 cents. If your cost of capital is 10%, then that jump saves you $2.32 a year. So you could pay, say, $2 a year to the protection provider and still be up a few cents, versus not buying credit protection – plus, of course, you’ve got credit protection (meaning that you get more money back if there are defaults). And if you pay $2 a year for five years to protect $10 worth of risk, then the protection provider should do that trade all day long: he’s getting paid $10 to take $10 of risk. At worst – if 10% of your stuff, or for that matter all of your stuff, defaults – he breaks even. It’s free money.
That’s oversimplified (time value, counterparty risk, whatever), but it’s kind of a thing. To some extent that thinking underlies things like the glorious Credit Suisse PAF2 trade, where Credit Suisse basically wrote credit protection to itself because doing so saved it so much on risk-weighted assets. But the folks on the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision don’t particularly like it, and so they released a document today yelling at banks about it. Read more »