Here's how it works: a bank will set up a shelf company in Cayman Islands or somewhere with $2 of capital and shareholders other than the bank itself. They are usually charities that could use a little cash, and when some nice banker in a suit shows up and offers them money to sign some documents, they do.
That allows the so-called special purpose vehicle (SPV) to have "deniability", as in "it's nothing to do with us" – an idea the banks would have picked up from the Godfather movies.
The bank then creates a CDS between itself and the SPV. Usually credit default swaps reference a single third party, but for the purpose of the synthetic CDOs, they reference at least 100 companies.
The CDS contracts between the SPV can be $US500 million to $US1 billion, or sometimes more. They have a variety of twists and turns, but it usually goes something like this: if seven of the 100 reference entities default, the SPV has to pay the bank a third of the money; if eight default, it's two-thirds; and if nine default, the whole amount is repayable.
For this, the bank agrees to pay the SPV 1 or 2 per cent per annum of the contracted sum.
Finally the SPV is taken along to Moody's, Standard and Poor's and Fitch's and the ratings agencies sprinkle AAA magic dust upon it, and transform it from a pumpkin into a splendid coach.
The bank's sales people then hit the road to sell this SPV to investors. It's presented as the bank's product, and the sales staff pretend that the bank is fully behind it, but of course it's actually a $2 Cayman Islands company with one or two unknowing charities as shareholders.
It offers a highly-rated, investment-grade, fixed-interest product paying a 1 or 2 per cent premium. Those investors who bother to read the fine print will see that they will lose some or all of their money if seven, eight or nine of a long list of apparently strong global corporations go broke. In 2004-2006 it seemed money for jam. The companies listed would never go broke – it was unthinkable.
Here are some of the companies that are on all of the synthetic CDO reference lists: the three Icelandic banks, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, American Insurance Group, Ambac, MBIA, Countrywide Financial, Countrywide Home Loans, PMI, General Motors, Ford and a pretty full retinue of US home builders.
In other words, the bankers who created the synthetic CDOs knew exactly what they were doing. These were not simply investment products created out of thin air and designed to give their sales people something from which to earn fees – although they were that too.
They were specifically designed to protect the banks against default by the most leveraged companies in the world. And of course the banks knew better than anyone else who they were.
As one part of the bank was furiously selling loans to these companies, another part was furiously selling insurance contracts against them defaulting, to unsuspecting investors who were actually a bit like "Lloyds Names" – the 1500 or so individuals who back the London reinsurance giant.
Except in this case very few of the "names" knew what they were buying. And nobody has any idea how many were sold, or with what total face value.
It is known that some $2 billion was sold to charities and municipal councils in Australia, but that is just the tip of the iceberg in this country. And Australia, of course, is the tiniest tip of the global iceberg of synthetic CDOs. The total undoubtedly runs into trillions of dollars.
All the banks did it, not just Lehman Brothers which had the largest market share, and many of them seem to have invested in the things as well (a bit like a dog eating its own vomit).
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