Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells

Letters to the editor are a common feature of most news publications. Often they are penned by outraged readers. Sometimes they are not. According to the BBC, staffers at the former Tunbridge Wells Advertiser wrote their own to fill space: “One [staffer] signed his simply ‘Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells’, and a legend was born.”

We note this because of a recent letter we came across in the Financial Times. It, too, appears to have been written by someone with an unusual sense of humor (though this time, no newspaper staffer or pseudonym is involved).

The FT letter is entitled “Fragmented derivatives market may cut global risk.” It’s written in response to an article about the lack of global coordination of derivatives regulations: “US rules ‘endanger’ derivatives reforms.”

So what’s the beef?

It’s this – the letter articulates the view that geographic fragmentation is a good thing:

“So, the global derivatives market could fragment along regional lines. That might be anathema for some – yet might make for a safer, less globally connected and also more constrained market… the mere decline in the extent and inter-regional connectedness of derivatives trading could make for less global risk.”

And it does so apparently because global reform is the brainchild of special interests:

“Until recently, ‘reform’ implied action in the public interest. However, the adoption and globalisation of the reform agenda by special interests merits a second glance…”

It would be great if the derivatives industry could take credit for the idea that markets are global, but we must give credit where it is due. It’s not a particularly new idea. But it is one espoused by global policymakers. As the 2009 G20 Pittsburgh Summit Communique stated:

“Continuing the revival in world trade and investment is essential to restoring global growth. It is imperative we stand together to fight against protectionism… We will keep markets open and free… We will not retreat into financial protectionism, particularly measures that constrain worldwide capital flows, especially to developing countries.”

Economic theory posits that globalization increases economic growth and reduces poverty. As a recent issue of The Economist stated:

“According to Amartya Sen, a Nobel-Prize winning economist, globalisation ‘has enriched the world scientifically and culturally, and benefited many people economically as well’. The United Nations has even predicted that the forces of globalisation may have the power to eradicate poverty in the 21st century.”

We think the benefits of global financial markets also accrue to users of derivatives. It enables counterparties who do not want a particular risk to more easily and more cheaply find someone better able to manage that risk. That could be the firm next door or the firm across the ocean.

If derivatives markets were not global, then that risk would be transferred to someone locally – or not at all.

In either case, the risk is likely to be less effectively managed. Which ultimately means that risk in the system might increase, rather than decrease, if markets are fragmented. And while that may not be a reason to be disgusted, it’s certainly a reason to be dismayed.

Half Empty or Half Full?

An article in the Financial Times on Monday treated us to another take on the empty creditor hypothesis. Professors Marti Subrahmanyam (NYU) and Pablo Triana (ESADE) write that:

“Bond or loan holders using CDS to gain credit protection qualify as empty creditors: if the borrower gets into trouble, the CDS, if triggered, would cover any losses on the underlying position; if the borrower honours its obligation, the investment is made whole (minus the cost of the CDS protection).”

So what’s the problem? In the opinion of the authors, it’s this:

“Empty creditors are lenders (to a corporation or government) that cease to be concerned about whether the borrower fares well or poorly. Their interests are not aligned with those of other creditors, who prefer that the debtor does well, so that the debt is repaid…

“In a more extreme scenario, the empty creditor may benefit even more by “over-insuring” – purchasing a proportionately larger amount of CDS protection than the debt owned (there is no real limit on the amount of CDS “protection” investors can buy). Obviously, those who did not enter into CDS are not indifferent to bad news as they have a more asymmetric pay-off.”

Our research department wrote a piece that addresses many of these issues a few years ago. We won’t repeat the entire argument, except to highlight a few key points from that piece.

The first relates to whether CDS do indeed lead creditors to prefer bankruptcy over restructuring. It posits that if the ability to hedge using CDS tends to make restructurings less likely than a bankruptcy filing, the correlation between number of defaults and restructurings as a percent of defaults should be lower when CDS are available than when they are not. The paper stated:

“The data show that the correlation between number of defaults in a given year and restructurings relative to defaults in the same year is about 9 percent over the entire sample period. But restricting attention to the period of liquid credit default swap markets, which arguably began in 2003 with the publication of the 2003 ISDA Credit Derivative Definitions and the subsequent initiation of trading in the CDX and iTraxx credit indexes, the correlation jumps to 90 percent. While correlations within small data sets should be interpreted carefully, the correlation statistics presented here would not appear to support the empty creditor hypothesis, according to which the availability of credit default swaps would make restructurings less likely.”

But wait, there’s more:

“Further evidence comes from the list of restructurings that occurred during 2008 and the first half of 2009… During that time, twenty-one firms underwent out-of-court restructurings; credit default swap protection was available on eleven of them (52 percent). And of the restructurings that occurred during that period, four subsequently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy; of those four, two had liquid CDS available and two did not. Again, the evidence thus far does not appear to support the empty creditor hypothesis.”

The second point we would make has to do with what the FT article referred to as “over-insuring” and our paper described as “negative economic ownership.”  Again, our paper stated:

“…one may reasonably question the plausibility of the second hypotheses on the basis of how the credit default swaps market treats distressed credit. If an investor were actually to try to build up a negative economic ownership position through overhedging, the strategy would be expensive and unlikely to yield a high return.

…[a]n overhedging strategy is likely to be profitable only if an unusually prescient hedger were to foresee accurately the failure of an investment grade company while the company’s credit default swaps still traded at a low spread. In such a case, the gain might be regarded as a windfall but would not lead to behavior that might affect the functioning of credit markets. And if the anticipated bankruptcy did not occur, the large hedge position could lead to large losses.

…Further, it is not clear how the investor would have been in a position to influence the likelihood of a bankruptcy, and thereby make a positive return more likely, other than by failing to support a restructuring if one were proposed. And as shown already, the evidence regarding restructurings does not support the contention that credit derivatives have had a negative effect on restructurings.”

A final thought: it’s interesting to note that a recent paper by Professor Subrahmanyam (“Does the Tail Wag the Dog?  The Effect of Credit Default Swaps on Credit Risk”) also addresses the empty creditor issue in considerably more detail. The paper is the first empirical work to “formally address the empty creditor concern.”

There is nothing in that paper to change our view that there are many factors influencing the likelihood of an out-of-court restructuring even before considering the effect of hedging using credit default swaps. And beyond the evidence we have provided – which thus far does not appear to support the empty creditor hypothesis – the new evidence they offer is interesting but not conclusive, as there are so many other factors in play. There’s still plenty of doubt regarding whether the empty creditor hypothesis is valid or its impact is negative.

Pay It Forward

An editorial in today’s Financial Times on the Greek debt situation contained this little gem:

“It is a false concern that triggering CDS may set off market contagion. The market is too small – and perverting the course of the swaps’ rules actually carries the bigger risk…”

To which we at ISDA say: Amen! We’ve been making similar points, and believe greater clarity about the CDS market is important, particularly as the Greek debt story continues to play out.

This story from CNBC will also help improve clarity. It outlines how the CDS credit event process works in a clear fashion. (One small note for viewers: the DC consists of 10 sell-side and 5 buy-side members).