June 2004

Understanding the Risk of Synthetic CDOs

Michael S. Gibson


Synthetic collateralized debt obligations, or synthetic CDOs, are popular vehicles for trading the credit risk of a portfolio of assets. Following a brief summary of the development of the synthetic CDO market, I draw on recent innovations in modeling to present a pricing model for CDO tranches that does not require Monte Carlo simulation. I use the model to analyze the risk characteristics of the tranches of synthetic CDOs. The analysis shows that although the more junior CDO tranches -- equity and mezzanine tranches -- typically contain a small fraction of the notional amount of the CDO's reference portfolio, they bear a majority of the credit risk. One implication is that credit risk disclosures relying on notional amounts are especially inadequate for firms that invest in CDOs. I show how the equity and mezzanine tranches can be viewed as leveraged exposures to the underlying credit risk of the CDO's reference portfolio. Even though mezzanine tranches are typically rated investment-grade, the leverage they possess implies their risk (and expected return) can be many times that of an investment-grade corporate bond. The paper goes on to show how CDO tranches and other innovative credit products, such as single-tranche CDOs and first-to-default basket swaps, are sensitive to the correlation of defaults among the credits in the reference portfolio. Differences of opinion among market participants as to the correct default correlation can create trading opportunities. Finally, the paper shows how the dependence of CDO tranches on default correlation can also be characterized and measured as an exposure to the business cycle, or as "business cycle risk." A mezzanine tranche, in particular, is highly sensitive to business cycle risk.

Keywords: Credit derivatives, credit risk, collateralized debt obligation

PDF: Full Paper

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Last Update: January 11, 2021