April 3, 2023
The recent collapse of the 167-year-old Credit Suisse and runs on regional banks in the U.S. have brought credit default swaps (CDS) back into the spotlight, raising concerns about their role in the ongoing turmoil in European banks. Investors, anxious about which bank might be next, have driven down the shares and bonds of some of Europe’s most prominent banking names, including Deutsche Bank, Germany’s largest lender. In light of these events, it is crucial to understand what CDS are, their historical context, and the factors contributing to the current volatility in the market.
What are Credit Default Swaps?
Credit default swaps are financial derivatives that provide insurance against the risk of a bond issuer, such as a company, a bank, or a sovereign government, defaulting on their debt obligations. Bond investors hope to receive interest on their bonds and their money back when the bond matures, but there’s no guarantee that these outcomes will materialize. CDS help to mitigate this risk by offering a form of insurance.
Recent Volatility in the CDS Market
In 2022, the Credit Default Swap (CDS) market experienced a significant increase in trading volume, with $30 trillion traded across CDS markets, reaching its highest level since at least 2009, according to recent data. This surge in trading volume indicates a more active CDS market compared to previous years.
The volatility in the CDS market can be attributed to several factors, including concerns about the stability of the European banking system. For instance, the CDS on Deutsche Bank’s five-year debt spiked above 200 basis points (bps) last week, up from 85 bps just two weeks prior, as investors grew increasingly apprehensive about the broader European banking system. Andrea Enria, the banking supervisory chief at the European Central Bank, highlighted that the volatility in Deutsche Bank’s securities, including CDS, is a troubling sign of how quickly investors can become alarmed.
The Role of CDS in the 2008 Financial Crisis
CDS played a central role in the 2008 financial crisis when banks like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers issued them to investors on mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and other types of derivatives. The proliferation of CDS during this period was largely driven by the demand for insurance on MBS, which were viewed as safe investments due to their high credit ratings.
In the years leading up to the crisis, banks and other financial institutions increasingly relied on CDS to hedge their risks associated with subprime mortgage lending. The rapid expansion of the housing market, fueled by low interest rates and loose lending practices, led to a surge in subprime mortgages. These mortgages were then bundled into MBS, which were sold to investors seeking higher returns. CDS provided a way for these investors to protect themselves against potential defaults on the underlying mortgage loans.
However, when U.S. interest rates began to rise in 2007, a wave of mortgage defaults followed, causing the value of MBS and other bundled securities to plummet. This development exposed the vulnerabilities in the CDS market, as the financial institutions that had sold CDS on these MBS encountered significant losses. The heavy exposure of major banks, such as Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, to the CDS market and the mortgage-backed securities made them particularly susceptible to the downturn in the housing market.
As the crisis unfolded, the value of the underlying mortgage-backed securities plummeted, putting immense pressure on banks that had sold CDS contracts. Many banks, including Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, found themselves struggling to meet their obligations, as the deteriorating value of their mortgage-related assets and the potential CDS payouts strained their capital reserves and liquidity. This led to a cascading series of defaults and near-defaults, resulting in the collapse of several major financial institutions and the near-collapse of others.
The role of CDS in the 2008 financial crisis highlighted the systemic risks associated with these complex financial instruments. The lack of transparency and regulation in the CDS market, combined with the interconnectedness of global financial institutions and the widespread exposure to mortgage-backed securities, created a domino effect that ultimately led to a worldwide financial meltdown. In the aftermath of the crisis, regulatory bodies around the world have implemented stricter rules and regulations governing the use of CDS and other derivatives, in an effort to prevent similar crises from occurring in the future.
Challenges in the CDS Market
One significant challenge in the CDS market is its opacity and illiquidity, making it difficult for investors to navigate. This results in situations where even small CDS trades can have an outsized price impact. However, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) has stated that the market has become more transparent in recent years, with rules requiring trades to be reported to regulators via trade repositories and an increase in the clearing of standardized derivatives.
The historical context of CDS, particularly their role in the 2008 financial crisis, serves as a reminder of the potential consequences of unchecked risk-taking and a lack of transparency in the financial markets. While the CDS market has evolved since then, with increased regulation and efforts to improve transparency, the recent events surrounding Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, and other European banks underscore the importance of continued vigilance and learning from the past to minimize the chances of future crises.
In the current environment, regulators and market participants must carefully monitor the CDS market to identify and address potential risks before they escalate into full-blown crises. Central clearing for CDS, as suggested by the ECB’s Enria, could improve transparency and reduce the risk of volatility, making it a potential avenue for further market improvements.
The recent volatility in the CDS market also emphasizes the importance of investor education. Understanding the intricacies of these financial instruments and the factors contributing to market fluctuations can help investors navigate the complex landscape of credit default swaps more effectively.
Ultimately, the turbulence in the CDS market serves as a valuable lesson for all stakeholders in the financial industry, emphasizing the need for continued transparency, regulation, and vigilance to maintain stability and prevent the recurrence of past crises.