Skip to main content

Mandatory Greek CDS Post

  • Author:
  • Updated:

The Greek CDS situation is sort of puzzling, but it's possible, and popular, to overstate its puzzlingness. We have probably been guilty of doing so in the past. In brief: if you hold Greek bonds, you sort of have to hand them over and get back other, shinier Greek bonds with half the face value. How sort of? The text of the statement is "we invite Greece, private investors and all parties concerned to develop a voluntary bond exchange with a nominal discount of 50% on notional Greek debt held by private investors," which is an attractive invitation although it does not exactly indicate that the party is occurring right now. But that sentence is code; it was negotiated by the banks' trade group and is a sort of quid pro quo for bank recaps and general regulatory approval so you'd expect most - not necessarily all - of the banks to be onside. The fact that the statement was released suggests that everyone thinks there are soft commitments to exchange from the banks holding the large majority of Greece's debt, though they've thought that before.

If everyone who holds Greek bonds does the exchange, then Greece never defaults. They just did a voluntary exchange. This presents a problem for Greek CDS: if there's no default, there's no credit event, and CDS never pays off even though bondholders lost 50% of principal. This is ISDA's official conclusion and it's just sort of self-evidently right, although some people disagree.

Felix Salmon sums up the general outrage:

[O]n one level, the ISDA statement that this still isn’t a Greek default, for CDS purposes, makes some sense. I’d probably make the same decision myself. But on the other hand, this does make a farce of the idea that credit default swaps constitute default protection, at least in the sovereign arena. If they don’t protect you against this, what earthly use are they?

Well, with most derivatives, it's important to remember that the marginal investor isn't buying them for payoff-at-maturity but for the market moves along the way. People equate CDS to insurance but it's not. If you buy life insurance, it pays out if you die and it doesn't if you don't; if you just decide to take up drunk cliff-diving you don't get any interim payment. Most CDS never pays out because defaults are rare, but it's still a healthy market. Most investors don't primarily care if CDS pays off when they crystallize a loss by handing in a bond in a pseudo-voluntary pseudo-default, because they're unlikely to do that. They care if their CDS mark goes up, in a realizable way, while their mark on the bond goes down. And it sort of does:

So you can exit your position today with a gain on the CDS that looks directionally like the loss on your debt.

Of course that argument shouldn't be taken too far, because it's a backwards induction argument: someone will buy it because they think (someone will buy it because they think [recurse]) it has a payout schedule corresponding in a predictable way to a possible reality. If the thing doesn't pay out when it's supposed to, the backward induction doesn't work. For someone to be willing to close out your CDS today, they have to think it's worth something - that it would pay out in the circumstances where it's supposed to pay out. And why would they think that?

Well, because it probably would. If you wanted to be a jerk, you could buy $1000 of Greek bonds and $1000 of CDS and wait. The voluntary exchange would happen, you'd ignore it, and your debt would come due. Then you'd hand it in and expect your 100 cents on the dollar. If Greece honored your debt, you'd get 100 cents on the dollar on the debt and zero on the CDS. If it didn't, then that definitely would be a credit event, and you'd get back X on the debt and 100 - X on the CDS. It is not entirely easy to predict which of these things would happen: if this purported exchange (or a future iteration of it) goes very well and leaves only a little stub of old debt, Greece will probably honor it; if not so much, then you'll be looking to your CDS. Because you have no idea which will happen, you buy both.

All that is obvious. But you have to be a jerk to do it, because think of all the Greeks who will face ouzo shortages due to your dastardly market manipulations. And in particular, you probably have to not be a big bank for whom European regulators and/or the IIF can make life unpleasant. Peter Tchir:

I would be unwinding basis packages for all sovereign debt. If you are at a bank or a bank hedging desk, I would be selling bonds/loans and selling protection. Everything you thought about CDS and how the hedges would work is potentially irrelevant.

But if you're selling that basis package, someone must be buying it, and the guy buying it is a jerk: a hedge fund who is willing to stare down the IIF, the EU, and Greek protesters and say "give me my money back or I will go complain to ISDA."

This is all fine and obvious and straightforward and actually probably not a reason to think that the Greek exchange will spell the end of sovereign CDS markets, because the Greek CDS market is still trading and basis is not horrific despite this basic structure of "voluntary" exchange having been on the table for months.

So why is it so much fun to freak out about this? Part of it is that it is sort of optically complicated: the ISDA determination process seems opaque, and is divorced from both economic reality and things like ratings agency determinations, which take a dimmer view of "voluntary" principal writedowns. Part of it is that the EU's determination not to trigger CDS does seem of a piece with their annoying determination to assault all markets, everywhere, out of an irrational hatred of speculators and anyone who would profit on Europe's incompetence, and in the aggregate that determination to shut down short selling, derivatives, etc. etc. probably will make European capital markets less useful.

But I think the freakout also reflects how counterintuitive it is that you need so few jerks to make CDS work. It seems likely that a large majority of Greek debt will be exchanged at fifty cents on the dollar (or less - this isn't done yet), by investors who will "voluntarily" give up a chance to call a default, collect on any derivatives they may have, and be made whole. That doesn't matter. They can offload those derivatives. And you only need a very few people to refuse: there's something under $4 billion of Greek CDS net notional outstanding, versus $245bn of Greek government debt, meaning that you'd need to get less than 2% of the debt market to make the simple scheme above work.* Everyone else can trade in CDS to their heart's content, before, during and after this exchange, because the expectation is that 2% of Greece's debt is likely to eventually find its way into the hands of investors who will stand on their contractual rights rather than chip in to help keep the European experiment alive.

This is counterintuitive but it's why people can go around talking about zero-arbitrage models and efficient markets with an almost straight face. You don't need everyone buying CDS to expect it to pay out, you just need a buyer of last resort who'll make it pay out. You don't need tons of short sellers to root out fraud, but you do need to allow short selling so that one or two clever and capitalized short sellers can bet against the frauds. You don't need all the buyers to think the price is right, just the marginal buyer.

Greek CDS "works" only in the limit case, only for a non-bank investor who's willing to be a jerk and run a certain amount of politico-PR risk. But that doesn't mean it mostly doesn't work. It means it entirely works.

* This sentence is loose: default on some de minimis amount of Greek debt would trigger all the Greek CDS in the universe; it's not tied to notional amounts. However, given delivery obligation auction mechanics, a de minimis default would screw with recovery values. In any case it should be clear that keeping $1 of Greek debt out of the exchange would be insufficient to protect CDS buyers and keeping $10bn out is unnecessary.


One Last Greek CDS Post Before It All Goes Poof

One of the side benefits of Greece taking whatever somewhat irreversible steps it is now taking is that something will happen to CDS written on existing Greek debt and that will mean that we can stop talking about what will happen to CDS written on existing Greek debt and start talking about more interesting things like quasi-CDS written by the EFSF on shaky Eurozone government debt. For now, though, we've got at least a few more weeks of surprisingly and unsurprisingly ill-informed fretting that triggering the $4bn of Greek CDS will Bring Down The Entire Global Financial System. That seems sort of silly because notionals aren't that big, mark-to-market collateral is mostly being posted, and at this point the marks are pretty close to what you'll get from Greece so it doesn't look like there's tons of unknown unrecognized losses lurking out there. On the other hand, we're mostly through with the speculation that not triggering Greek CDS will Prove That CDS Is Worthless and thereby Bring Down The Entire Global Financial System, so that's nice. The reason that's mostly over is that it sure looks like Greek CDS will in fact trigger, as Athens has moved to adopt a collective action clause that will flip the Greek restructuring from "voluntary, heh heh heh" to "involuntary" and thus trigger the ISDA restructuring event definition. You can argue that the mechanics of the cash settlement auction will mildly screw CDS holders but I'm not so sure, and in any case this is pretty solidly in the category of derivatives nerdery rather than Bring Down The etc.

This Is The Last Greek CDS Post Ever*

There's that famous scene in Liar's Poker - are there non-famous scenes in Liar's Poker? - where the much maligned equity department sends a program trader to impress Michael Lewis's jackass fellow Salomon trainees with his brilliance. It does not work: He lectured on his specialty. Then he opened the floor to questions. An M.B.A. from Chicago named Franky Simon moved in for the kill. "When you trade equity options," asked my friend Franky, "do you hedge your gamma and theta or just your delta? And if you don't hedge your gamma and theta, why not?" The equity options specialist nodded for about ten seconds. I'm not sure he even understood the words. ... The options trader lamely tried to laugh himself out of his hole. "You know," he said, "I don't know the answer. That's probably why I don't have trouble trading. I'll find out and come back tomorrow. I'm not really up on options theory." "That," said Franky, "is why you are in equities." This is totes unfair to the actual equity vol traders I know, but I kind of felt like that guy after talking to a CDS lawyer yesterday about this craziness in Greece. It went something like this: Me: As an equity derivatives guy, I expect derivatives to transform into derivatives on whatever their underlying transforms into. And I'm troubled by them not doing that. Lawyer: You should not be troubled by the concept of cheapest to deliver. Yeah fair! That's the thing about CDS. Dopes like me think of it as just a rough proxy for default risk but when things get real like with Greece it turns into a cheapest to deliver convexity play and then I slink away in embarrassment. But yeah, as a matter of rough justice, if you can go be opportunistic about finding the cheapest to deliver bond, Greece can go be crappy about leaving you with only expensive to deliver bonds. I guess.

So Maybe Greek CDS Will Be More Than Fine?

Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah Greece. Okay so all systems appear to be go on the Greek debt exchange, which means its time to decide What This Means, and, I just. Really. Greece. Come on. All I want is to talk about 13D reporting requirements, and now I have to pay attention to Portugal? No. Just no.* Still here is arguably a fun factoid: On Wednesday, Swiss bank UBS AG started quoting a "gray market" in new Greek sovereign bonds ... using as a guide details of the debt swap Greece has put on the table for private investors to accept until Thursday evening. The "bid" price for a batch of future Greek bonds due in 2042, or the highest price the dealer was willing to pay, was around 15 cents on the dollar; the "offer" price, or the most the dealer was willing to sell at, was 17 cents on the dollar, the first person said. ... The prices quoted by UBS imply that losses private creditors to Greece will take are more like 79% of face value, not the original haircut of 70-75% many had expected. Yeah but. If you believe this horrible CDS mechanics stuff that various people including me have been yammering about for weeks - here is the best explanation - that means that if for some reason you had the foresight to be long Greek bonds and hold CDS against them you'd end up with a package worth (1) 21 on the bonds and (2) 83 on the CDS (assuming that the 17 offer for the 2042 bonds represents a real price for the cheapest-to-deliver new bond in the Greek auction) for (3) 104 total which is (4) more than par, so you win this particular game, yay. Which you were at risk of losing - a week ago one of our fearless commenters spotted the longest new bonds at 25ish vs. 24ish for the old-bond-y package, for a total of 99 for the hedged holder - losing 1 point versus par.**

So Maybe Greek CDS Won't Be Fine, Who Knows, I Give Up

ISDA decided today that there has been no credit event for purposes of Greek CDS. Obvs! And by "obvs!" I mean what I said the other day, which is that with 100% certainty there's been no credit event yet, but with 100% certainty there will be, so everyone should just chill out. Except that it seems like that last part may be wrong. So go ahead and panic. I used to make convertible bonds and some of my time was spent answering questions about what happened to things upon Events. The most popular was: what happens after a merger? If you have a convertible that converts into 10 shares of XYZ stock, but now XYZ is being acquired and each share of XYZ is being acquired for $30 in cash and 4.5 shares of PQR stock and a pony - what happens to the convertible? And the answer I would give usually started with "don't trouble your pretty little head about it." Like, it's fine: you have a convertible that converts into 10 Things, and before the merger each Thing was an XYZ share, and after each Thing is exactly what an XYZ share transformed into, so you convert into $300 and 45 PQR shares and 10 ponies. It just works because it has to work. Economic interests follow without interruption from changes in form; derivative securities poof into derivatives of things that the underlying poofs into. There is no arbitrage! That assumption is central to doing any sort of derivative work, and it spoiled me a bit. Sometimes people would come up with more complicated scenarios involving dividends, multiple-step transactions, weird splits and spinoffs and sales, etc. etc. And I would generally start from the bias "it has to work, so I am sure the document written in the way that works." Where "works" means "the economics and intent of the trade are preserved after the change in form." But of course the document was written by humans, often specifically me, and those humans, often including me, are fallible. So there may well be documents from my former line of work that don't "work" in the sense that an issuer could do some structural tricks that would screw holders out of their economics - where the derivative doesn't follow the underlying everywhere it might go. These tricks are unlikely enough that I don't lose sleep over them. You can't predict everything. I sort of assumed that Greek CDS also had to just work but here is Felix Salmon at Reuters saying no. Lisa Pollack at FT Alphaville said something similar a week ago but I could not fathom that she meant it so I read it to mean something else. But she means it, and Felix does too. Go read it but the basic gist of this theory is: