Over the past few days, two very smart people have asked me about a passage in Michael Lewis’s cover story for Portfolio in which he talks about synthetic CDOs without actually using the term. They said that they didn’t quite understand it, so I’m going to try to explain what a synthetic bond is. Once I’ve done that, the Lewis passage should be a lot more comprehensible. Let’s start with a simple single-credit synthetic bond. You’re an investor, and looking at the credit markets, you see that IBM debt is trading at attractive levels, especially around the 5-year mark, where they yield about 150bp over Treasuries. You’d really like to buy $100 million of IBM bonds maturing in five years, but IBM isn’t returning your calls (they have no desire to borrow money at these spreads), and there aren’t any IBM bonds with exactly the maturity you want. What’s more, even the bonds with maturities nearby are illiquid, and closely held: there’s no way you can just blunder into the market and buy up that many bonds without massively skewing the market, since the overwhelming majority of the bonds are just not for sale.
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