This column was originally published on RealMoney . It's being republished as a bonus for TheStreet.com readers.Two changes have taken place in the corporate bond market in recent years. The first change deals with credit default swaps, which I'll discuss in today's column. In Part 2 I'll talk about how corporate bonds are analyzed differently now.
Surviving the Loss of a Major Class of InvestorThere used to be a tendency for Wall Street to hold a supply of corporate bonds to sell to the buy side. That changed when credit default swaps were, or CDS, developed. A credit default swap is a transaction where one party buys protection against the default of a corporate credit from another party. The party selling protection receives a constant payment over the life of the transaction so long as the corporate credit does not default. These swaps were developed in the mid-1990s, but they remained somewhat tangential to investment banks until the negative side of the credit cycle hit in 2000-2002. Many banks did a huge business in CDS, but they traded cash bonds and CDS separately. Typically, the cash bond side of the house was net long corporate bonds, and the CDS side was typically flat credit risk. From late 2001 through 2002, a major change rippled through the "bulge bracket" firms on Wall Street. They got the bright idea to trade cash bonds and CDS together as a group. This had several desirable outcomes:
- It enabled them to hold a larger inventory of corporate bonds with less risk.
- It enabled them to be flat the corporate bond market in a period of severe stress. (However, it must be noted that most of those that instituted programs like this had the trough of the corporate bond market.)
- It allowed them to trade more rationally. There were new trades that could be done by comparing the cash bond market and CDS market, going long one and short the other. (Note: Here's how to make money on corporate trading desks: You have more flow in the market than most people you trade with. When clients offer you mispriced trades in your favor, you trade with them and then buy or sell the offsetting positions in the intradealer market at a fair price. With CDS, you have more options for laying off the risk.)
In one sense, we are in a brave new world for both life insurance companies and the corporate bond market because the life insurance industry alone is not big enough to purchase all of the corporate bonds outstanding. Perhaps foreign institutions have filled the gap at present; if so, it will be interesting to see whether foreign capital is as patient as the life insurance industry if we have another downturn in the credit markets.
Here is an example of how the world has changed. In late 2000, Xerox ( XRX) was under threat of downgrade from both ratings agencies. A downgrade from either agency would make Xerox unable to sell commercial paper, which it needed to finance its deteriorating business. The company tried to issue more commercial paper, but the auction failed, which forced it to exit the commercial paper market. To make up for the cash flow shortfall, Xerox went to its banks to tap its CP backup credit lines. The banks, distressed that what was previously considered free money for them was actually going to be put to use, went to hedge their risks in the CDS market as the CP backup lines got drawn down. The massive buying demand for Xerox CDS led the CDS spreads to widen, which spread into the corporate bond market through arbitrage and eventually led the price of Xerox common equity downward. This happened in a matter of a few days, although the effects rippled for weeks afterward. Thus, in a panic situation, every market that provides capital to corporations fights against the corporations in a unified manner. This is very different from how the markets behaved 10 years ago. The implication for equity investors is that if you're buying the equity of debt-issuing corporations, you must be aware that in a crisis they will be more volatile than they were in the past. Next time, in Part 2 of this column, I'll take a closer look at the changes that have taken place in the analysis of corporate bonds.