Banking and Lending/Investment. How Monetary Policy Becomes Decisive? Some Branching Rumination.


Among the most notoriously pernicious effects of asset price inflation is that it offers speculators the prospect of gain in excess of the costs of borrowing the money to buy the asset whose price is being inflated. This is how many unstable Ponzi financing structures begin. There are usually strict regulations to prevent or limit banks’ direct investment in financial instruments without any assured residual liquidity, such as equity or common stocks. However, it is less easy to prevent banks from lending to speculative investors, who then use the proceeds of their loans to buy securities or to limit lending secured on financial assets. As long as asset markets are being inflated, such credit expansions also conceal from banks, their shareholders and their regulators the disintermediation that occurs when the banks’ best borrowers, governments and large companies, use bills and company paper instead of bank loans for their short-term financing. As long as the boom proceeds, banks can enjoy the delusion that they can replace the business of governments and large companies with good lending secured on stocks.

In addition to undermining the solvency of the banking system, and distracting commerce and industry with the possibilities of lucrative corporate restructuring, capital market inflation also tends to make monetary policy ineffective. Monetary policy is principally the fixing of reserve requirements, buying and selling short-term paper or bills in the money or inter-bank markets, buying and selling government bonds and fixing short-term interest rates. As noted in the previous section, with capital market inflation there has been a proliferation of short-term financial assets traded in the money markets, as large companies and banks find it cheaper to issue their own paper than to borrow for banks. This disintermediation has extended the range of short-term liquid assets which banks may hold. As a result of this it is no longer possible for central banks, in countries experiencing capital market inflation, to control the overall amount of credit available in the economy: attempts to squeeze the liquidity of banks in order to limit their credit advances by, say, open market operations (selling government bonds) are frustrated by the ease with which banks may restore their liquidity by selling bonds or their holdings of short-term paper or bills. In this situation central banks have been forced to reduce the scope of their monetary policy to the setting of short-term interest rates.

Economists have long believed that monetary policy is effective in controlling price inflation in the economy at large, as opposed to inflation of securities prices. Various rationalizations have been advanced for this efficacy of monetary policy. For the most part they suppose some automatic causal connection between changes in the quantity of money in circulation and changes in prices, although the Austrian School of Economists (here, here, here, and here) tended on occasion to see the connection as being between changes in the rate of interest and changes in prices.

Whatever effect changes in the rate of interest may have on the aggregate of money circulating in the economy, the effect of such changes on prices has to be through the way in which an increase or decrease in the rate of interest causes alterations in expenditure in the economy. Businesses and households are usually hard-headed enough to decide their expenditure and financial commitments in the light of their nominal revenues and cash outflows, which may form their expectations, rather than in accordance with their expectations or optimizing calculations. If the same amount of money continues to be spent in the economy, then there is no effective reason for the business-people setting prices to vary prices. Only if expenditure in markets is rising or falling would retailers and industrialists consider increasing or decreasing prices. Because price expectations are observable directly with difficulty, they may explain everything in general and therefore lack precision in explaining anything in particular. Notwithstanding their effects on all sorts of expectations, interest rate changes affect inflation directly through their effects on expenditure.

The principal expenditure effects of changes in interest rates occur among net debtors in the economy, i.e., economic units whose financial liabilities exceed their financial assets. This is in contrast to net creditors, whose financial assets exceed their liabilities, and who are usually wealthy enough not to have their spending influenced by changes in interest rates. If they do not have sufficient liquid savings out of which to pay the increase in their debt service payments, then net debtors have their expenditure squeezed by having to devote more of their income to debt service payments. The principal net debtors are governments, households with mortgages and companies with large bank loans.

With or without capital market inflation, higher interest rates have never constrained government spending because of the ease with which governments may issue debt. In the case of indebted companies, the degree to which their expenditure is constrained by higher interest rates depends on their degree of indebtedness, the available facilities for additional financing and the liquidity of their assets. As a consequence of capital market inflation, larger companies reduce their borrowing from banks because it becomes cheaper and more convenient to raise even short- term finance in the booming securities markets. This then makes the expenditure of even indebted companies less immediately affected by changes in bank interest rates, because general changes in interest rates cannot affect the rate of discount or interest paid on securities already issued. Increases in short-term interest rates to reduce general price inflation can then be easily evaded by companies financing themselves by issuing longer-term securities, whose interest rates tend to be more stable. Furthermore, with capital market inflation, companies are more likely to be over-capitalized and have excessive financial liabilities, against which companies tend to hold a larger stock of more liquid assets. As inflated financial markets have become more unstable, this has further increased the liquidity preference of large companies. This excess liquidity enables the companies enjoying it to gain higher interest income to offset the higher cost of their borrowing and to maintain their planned spending. Larger companies, with access to capital markets, can afford to issue securities to replenish their liquid reserves.

If capital market inflation reduces the effectiveness of monetary policy against product price inflation, because of the reduced borrowing of companies and the ability of booming asset markets to absorb large quantities of bank credit, interest rate increases have appeared effective in puncturing asset market bubbles in general and capital market inflations in particular. Whether interest rate rises actually can effect an end to capital market inflation depends on how such rises actually affect the capital market. In asset markets, as with anti-inflationary policy in the rest of the economy, such increases are effective when they squeeze the liquidity of indebted economic units by increasing the outflow of cash needed to service debt payments and by discouraging further speculative borrowing. However, they can only be effective in this way if the credit being used to inflate the capital market is short term or is at variable rates of interest determined by the short-term rate.

Keynes’s speculative demand for money is the liquidity preference or demand for short-term securities of rentiers in relation to the yield on long-term securities. Keynes’s speculative motive is ‘a continuous response to gradual changes in the rate of interest’ in which, as interest rates along the whole maturity spectrum decline, there is a shift in rentiers’ portfolio preference toward more liquid assets. Keynes clearly equated a rise in equity (common stock) prices with just such a fall in interest rates. With falling interest rates, the increasing preference of rentiers for short-term financial assets could keep the capital market from excessive inflation.

But the relationship between rates of interest, capital market inflation and liquidity preference is somewhat more complicated. In reality, investors hold liquid assets not only for liquidity, which gives them the option to buy higher-yielding longer-term stocks when their prices fall, but also for yield. This marginalizes Keynes’s speculative motive for liquidity. The motive was based on Keynes’s distinction between what he called ‘speculation’ (investment for capital gain) and ‘enterprise’ (investment long term for income). In our times, the modern rentier is the fund manager investing long term on behalf of pension and insurance funds and competing for returns against other funds managers. An inflow into the capital markets in excess of the financing requirements of firms and governments results in rising prices and turnover of stock. This higher turnover means greater liquidity so that, as long as the capital market is being inflated, the speculative motive for liquidity is more easily satisfied in the market for long-term securities.

Furthermore, capital market inflation adds a premium of expected inflation, or prospective capital gain, to the yield on long-term financial instruments. Hence when the yield decreases, due to an increase in the securities’ market or actual price, the prospective capital gain will not fall in the face of this capital appreciation, but may even increase if it is large or abrupt. Rising short-term interest rates will therefore fail to induce a shift in the liquidity preference of rentiers towards short-term instruments until the central bank pushes these rates of interest above the sum of the prospective capital gain and the market yield on long-term stocks. Only at this point will there be a shift in investors’ preferences, causing capital market inflation to cease, or bursting an asset bubble.

This suggests a new financial instability hypothesis, albeit one that is more modest and more limited in scope and consequence than Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis. During an economic boom, capital market inflation adds a premium of expected capital gain to the market yield on long-term stocks. As long as this yield plus the expected capital gain exceed the rate of interest on short-term securities set by the central bank’s monetary policy, rising short-term interest rates will have no effect on the inflow of funds into the capital market and, if this inflow is greater than the financing requirements of firms and governments, the resulting capital market inflation. Only when the short-term rate of interest exceeds the threshold set by the sum of the prospective capital gain and the yield on long-term stocks will there be a shift in rentiers’ preferences. The increase in liquidity preference will reduce the inflow of funds into the capital market. As the rise in stock prices moderates, the prospective capital gain gets smaller, and may even become negative. The rentiers’ liquidity preference increases further and eventually the stock market crashes, or ceases to be active in stocks of longer maturities.

At this point, the minimal or negative prospective capital gain makes equity or common stocks unattractive to rentiers at any positive yield, until the rate of interest on short-term securities falls below the sum of the prospective capital gain and the market yield on those stocks. When the short-term rate of interest does fall below this threshold, the resulting reduction in rentiers’ liquidity preference revives the capital market. Thus, in between the bursting of speculative bubbles and the resurrection of a dormant capital market, monetary policy has little effect on capital market inflation. Hence it is a poor regulator for ‘squeezing out inflationary expectations’ in the capital market.

Option Spread. Drunken Risibility.


The term spread refers to the difference in premiums between the purchase and sale of options. An option spread is the simultaneous purchase of one or more options contracts and sale of the equivalent number of options contracts, in a different series of the class of options. A spread could involve the same underlying:

  •  Buying and selling calls, or
  •  Buying and selling puts.

Combining puts and calls into groups of two or more makes it feasible to design derivatives with interesting payoff profiles. The profit and loss outcomes depend on the options used (puts or calls); positions taken (long or short); whether their strike prices are identical or different; and the similarity or difference of their exercise dates. Among directional positions are bullish vertical call spreads, bullish vertical put spreads, bearish vertical spreads, and bearish vertical put spreads.

If the long position has a higher premium than the short position, this is known as a debit spread, and the investor will be required to deposit the difference in premiums. If the long position has a lower premium than the short position, this is a credit spread, and the investor will be allowed to withdraw the difference in premiums. The spread will be even if the premiums on each side results are the same.

A potential loss in an option spread is determined by two factors:

  • Strike price
  • Expiration date

If the strike price of the long call is greater than the strike price of the short call, or if the strike price of the long put is less than the strike price of the short put, a margin is required because adverse market moves can cause the short option to suffer a loss before the long option can show a profit.

A margin is also required if the long option expires before the short option. The reason is that once the long option expires, the trader holds an unhedged short position. A good way of looking at margin requirements is that they foretell potential loss. Here are, in a nutshell, the main option spreadings.

A calendar, horizontal, or time spread is the simultaneous purchase and sale of options of the same class with the same exercise prices but with different expiration dates. A vertical, or price or money, spread is the simultaneous purchase and sale of options of the same class with the same expiration date but with different exercise prices. A bull, or call, spread is a type of vertical spread that involves the purchase of the call option with the lower exercise price while selling the call option with the higher exercise price. The result is a debit transaction because the lower exercise price will have the higher premium.

  • The maximum risk is the net debit: the long option premium minus the short option premium.
  • The maximum profit potential is the difference in the strike prices minus the net debit.
  • The breakeven is equal to the lower strike price plus the net debit.

A trader will typically buy a vertical bull call spread when he is mildly bullish. Essentially, he gives up unlimited profit potential in return for reducing his risk. In a vertical bull call spread, the trader is expecting the spread premium to widen because the lower strike price call comes into the money first.

Vertical spreads are the more common of the direction strategies, and they may be bullish or bearish to reflect the holder’s view of market’s anticipated direction. Bullish vertical put spreads are a combination of a long put with a low strike, and a short put with a higher strike. Because the short position is struck closer to-the-money, this generates a premium credit.

Bearish vertical call spreads are the inverse of bullish vertical call spreads. They are created by combining a short call with a low strike and a long call with a higher strike. Bearish vertical put spreads are the inverse of bullish vertical put spreads, generated by combining a short put with a low strike and a long put with a higher strike. This is a bearish position taken when a trader or investor expects the market to fall.

The bull or sell put spread is a type of vertical spread involving the purchase of a put option with the lower exercise price and sale of a put option with the higher exercise price. Theoretically, this is the same action that a bull call spreader would take. The difference between a call spread and a put spread is that the net result will be a credit transaction because the higher exercise price will have the higher premium.

  • The maximum risk is the difference in the strike prices minus the net credit.
  • The maximum profit potential equals the net credit.
  • The breakeven equals the higher strike price minus the net credit.

The bear or sell call spread involves selling the call option with the lower exercise price and buying the call option with the higher exercise price. The net result is a credit transaction because the lower exercise price will have the higher premium.

A bear put spread (or buy spread) involves selling some of the put option with the lower exercise price and buying the put option with the higher exercise price. This is the same action that a bear call spreader would take. The difference between a call spread and a put spread, however, is that the net result will be a debit transaction because the higher exercise price will have the higher premium.

  • The maximum risk is equal to the net debit.
  • The maximum profit potential is the difference in the strike
    prices minus the net debit.
  • The breakeven equals the higher strike price minus the net debit.

An investor or trader would buy a vertical bear put spread because he or she is mildly bearish, giving up an unlimited profit potential in return for a reduction in risk. In a vertical bear put spread, the trader is expecting the spread premium to widen because the higher strike price put comes into the money first.

So, investors and traders who are bullish on the market will either buy a bull call spread or sell a bull put spread. But those who are bearish on the market will either buy a bear put spread or sell a bear call spread. When the investor pays more for the long option than she receives in premium for the short option, then the spread is a debit transaction. In contrast, when she receives more than she pays, the spread is a credit transaction. Credit spreads typically require a margin deposit.

Synthetic Structured Financial Instruments. Note Quote.


An option is common form of a derivative. It’s a contract, or a provision of a contract, that gives one party (the option holder) the right, but not the obligation to perform a specified transaction with another party (the option issuer or option writer) according to specified terms. Options can be embedded into many kinds of contracts. For example, a corporation might issue a bond with an option that will allow the company to buy the bonds back in ten years at a set price. Standalone options trade on exchanges or Over The Counter (OTC). They are linked to a variety of underlying assets. Most exchange-traded options have stocks as their underlying asset but OTC-traded options have a huge variety of underlying assets (bonds, currencies, commodities, swaps, or baskets of assets). There are two main types of options: calls and puts:

  • Call options provide the holder the right (but not the obligation) to purchase an underlying asset at a specified price (the strike price), for a certain period of time. If the stock fails to meet the strike price before the expiration date, the option expires and becomes worthless. Investors buy calls when they think the share price of the underlying security will rise or sell a call if they think it will fall. Selling an option is also referred to as ”writing” an option.
  • Put options give the holder the right to sell an underlying asset at a specified price (the strike price). The seller (or writer) of the put option is obligated to buy the stock at the strike price. Put options can be exercised at any time before the option expires. Investors buy puts if they think the share price of the underlying stock will fall, or sell one if they think it will rise. Put buyers – those who hold a “long” – put are either speculative buyers looking for leverage or “insurance” buyers who want to protect their long positions in a stock for the period of time covered by the option. Put sellers hold a “short” expecting the market to move upward (or at least stay stable) A worst-case scenario for a put seller is a downward market turn. The maximum profit is limited to the put premium received and is achieved when the price of the underlyer is at or above the option’s strike price at expiration. The maximum loss is unlimited for an uncovered put writer.

Coupon is the annual interest rate paid on a bond, expressed as percentage of the face value.

Coupon rate or nominal yield = annual payments ÷ face value of the bond

Current yield = annual payments ÷ market value of the bond

The reason for these terms to be briefed here through their definitions from investopedia lies in the fact that these happen to be pillars of synthetic financial instruments, to which we now take a detour.

According to the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), a synthetic instrument is a financial product designed, acquired, and held to emulate the characteristics of another instrument. For example, such is the case of a floating-rate long-term debt combined with an interest rate swap. This involves

  • Receiving floating payments
  • Making fixed payments, thereby synthesizing a fixed-rate long-term debt

Another example of a synthetic is the output of an option strategy followed by dealers who are selling synthetic futures for a commodity that they hold by using a combination of put and call options. By simultaneously buying a put option in a given commodity, say, gold, and selling the corresponding call option, a trader can construct a position analogous to a short sale in the commodity’s futures market.

Because the synthetic short sale seeks to take advantage of price disparities between call and put options, it tends to be more profitable when call premiums are greater than comparable put premiums. For example, the holder of a synthetic short future will profit if gold prices decrease and incur losses if gold prices increase.

By analogy, a long position in a given commodity’s call option combined with a short sale of the same commodity’s futures creates price protection that is similar to that gained through purchasing put options. A synthetic put seeks to capitalize on disparities between call and put premiums.

Basically, synthetic products are covered options and certificates characterized by identical or similar profit and loss structures when compared with traditional financial instruments, such as equities or bonds. Basket certificates in equities are based on a specific number of selected stocks.

A covered option involves the purchase of an underlying asset, such as equity, bond, currency, or other commodity, and the writing of a call option on that same asset. The writer is paid a premium, which limits his or her loss in the event of a fall in the market value of the underlying. However, his or her potential return from any increase in the asset’s market value is conditioned by gains limited by the option’s strike price.

The concept underpinning synthetic covered options is that of duplicating traditional covered options, which can be achieved by both purchase of the underlying asset and writing of the call option. The purchase price of such a product is that of the underlying, less the premium received for the sale of the call option.

Moreover, synthetic covered options do not contain a hedge against losses in market value of the underlying. A hedge might be emulated by writing a call option or by calculating the return from the sale of a call option into the product price. The option premium, however, tends to limit possible losses in the market value of the underlying.

Alternatively, a synthetic financial instrument is done through a certificate that accords a right, based on either a number of underlyings or on having a value derived from several indicators. This presents a sense of diversification over a range of risk factors. The main types are

  • Index certificates
  • Region certificates
  • Basket certificates

By being based on an official index, index certificates reflect a given market’s behavior. Region certificates are derived from a number of indexes or companies from a given region, usually involving developing countries. Basket certificates are derived from a selection of companies active in a certain industry sector.

An investment in index, region, or basket certificates fundamentally involves the same level of potential loss as a direct investment in the corresponding assets themselves. Their relative advantage is diversification within a given specified range; but risk is not eliminated. Moreover, certificates also carry credit risk associated to the issuer.

Also available in the market are compound financial instruments, a frequently encountered form being that of a debt product with an embedded conversion option. An example of a compound financial instrument is a bond that is convertible into ordinary shares of the issuer. As an accounting standard, the IFRS requires the issuer of such a financial instrument to present separately on the balance sheet the

  • Equity component
  • Liability component

On initial recognition, the fair value of the liability component is the present value of the contractually determined stream of future cash flows, discounted at the rate of interest applied at that time by the market to substantially similar cash flows. These should be characterized by practically the same terms, albeit without a conversion option. The fair value of the option comprises its

  • Time value
  • Intrinsic value (if any)

The IFRS requires that on conversion of a convertible instrument at maturity, the reporting company derecognizes the liability component and recognizes it as equity. Embedded derivatives are an interesting issue inasmuch as some contracts that themselves are not financial instruments may have financial instruments embedded in them. This is the case of a contract to purchase a commodity at a fixed price for delivery at a future date.

Contracts of this type have embedded in them a derivative that is indexed to the price of the commodity, which is essentially a derivative feature within a contract that is not a financial derivative. International Accounting Standard 39 (IAS 39) of the IFRS requires that under certain conditions an embedded derivative is separated from its host contract and treated as a derivative instrument. For instance, the IFRS specifies that each of the individual derivative instruments that together constitute a synthetic financial product represents a contractual right or obligation with its own terms and conditions. Under this perspective,

  • Each is exposed to risks that may differ from the risks to which other financial products are exposed.
  • Each may be transferred or settled separately.

Therefore, when one financial product in a synthetic instrument is an asset and another is a liability, these two do not offset each other. Consequently, they should be presented on an entity’s balance sheet on a net basis, unless they meet specific criteria outlined by the aforementioned accounting standards.

Like synthetics, structured financial products are derivatives. Many are custom-designed bonds, some of which (over the years) have presented a number of problems to their buyers and holders. This is particularly true for those investors who are not so versatile in modern complex instruments and their further-out impact.

Typically, instead of receiving a fixed coupon or principal, a person or company holding a structured note will receive an amount adjusted according to a fairly sophisticated formula. Structured instruments lack transparency; the market, however, seems to like them, the proof being that the amount of money invested in structured notes continues to increase. One of many examples of structured products is the principal exchange-rate-linked security (PERLS). These derivative instruments target changes in currency rates. They are disguised to look like bonds, by structuring them as if they were debt instruments, making it feasible for investors who are not permitted to play in currencies to place bets on the direction of exchange rates.

For instance, instead of just repaying principal, a PERLS may multiply such principal by the change in the value of the dollar against the euro; or twice the change in the value of the dollar against the Swiss franc or the British pound. The fact that this repayment is linked to the foreign exchange rate of different currencies sees to it that the investor might be receiving a lot more than an interest rate on the principal alone – but also a lot less, all the way to capital attrition. (Even capital protection notes involve capital attrition since, in certain cases, no interest is paid over their, say, five-year life cycle.)

Structured note trading is a concept that has been subject to several interpretations, depending on the time frame within which the product has been brought to the market. Many traders tend to distinguish between three different generations of structured notes. The elder, or first generation, usually consists of structured instruments based on just one index, including

  • Bull market vehicles, such as inverse floaters and cap floaters
  • Bear market instruments, which are characteristically more leveraged, an example being the superfloaters

Bear market products became popular in 1993 and 1994. A typical superfloater might pay twice the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) minus 7 percent for two years. At currently prevailing rates, this means that the superfloater has a small coupon at the beginning that improves only if the LIBOR rises. Theoretically, a coupon that is below current market levels until the LIBOR goes higher is much harder to sell than a big coupon that gets bigger every time rates drop. Still, bear plays find customers.

Second-generation structured notes are different types of exotic options; or, more precisely, they are yet more exotic than superfloaters, which are exotic enough in themselves. There exist serious risks embedded in these instruments, as such risks have never been fully appreciated. Second-generation examples are

  • Range notes, with embedded binary or digital options
  • Quanto notes, which allow investors to take a bet on, say, sterling London Interbank Offered Rates, but get paid in dollar.

There are different versions of such instruments, like you-choose range notes for a bear market. Every quarter the investor has to choose the “range,” a job that requires considerable market knowledge and skill. For instance, if the range width is set to 100 basis points, the investor has to determine at the start of the period the high and low limits within that range, which is far from being a straight job.

Surprisingly enough, there are investors who like this because sometimes they are given an option to change their mind; and they also figure their risk period is really only one quarter. In this, they are badly mistaken. In reality even for banks you-choose notes are much more difficult to hedge than regular range notes because, as very few people appreciate, the hedges are both

  • Dynamic
  • Imperfect

There are as well third-generation notes offering investors exposure to commodity or equity prices in a cross-category sense. Such notes usually appeal to a different class than fixed-income investors. For instance, third-generation notes are sometimes purchased by fund managers who are in the fixed-income market but want to diversify their exposure. In spite of the fact that the increasing sophistication and lack of transparency of structured financial instruments sees to it that they are too often misunderstood, and they are highly risky, a horde of equity-linked and commodity-linked notes are being structured and sold to investors. Examples are LIBOR floaters designed so that the coupon is “LIBOR plus”:

The pros say that flexibly structured options can be useful to sophisticated investors seeking to manage particular portfolio and trading risks. However, as a result of exposure being assumed, and also because of the likelihood that there is no secondary market, transactions in flexibly structured options are not suitable for investors who are not

  • In a position to understand the behavior of their intrinsic value
  • Financially able to bear the risks embedded in them when worst comes to worst

It is the price of novelty, customization, and flexibility offered by synthetic and structured financial instruments that can be expressed in one four-letter word: risk. Risk taking is welcome when we know how to manage our exposure, but it can be a disaster when we don’t – hence, the wisdom of learning ahead of investing the challenges posed by derivatives and how to be in charge of risk control.

Credit Default Swaps.


Credit default swaps are the most liquid instruments in the credit derivatives markets, accounting for nearly half of the total outstanding notional worldwide, and up to 85% of total outstanding notional of contracts with reference to emerging market issuers. In a CDS, the protection buyer pays a premium to the protection seller in exchange for a contingent payment in case a credit event involving a reference security occurs during the contract period.


The premium (default swap spread) reflects the credit risk of the bond issuer, and is usually quoted as a spread over a reference rate such as LIBOR or the swap rate, to be paid either up front, quarterly, or semiannually. The contingent payment can be settled either by physical delivery of the reference security or an equivalent asset, or in cash. With physical settlement, the protection buyer delivers the reference security (or equivalent one) to the protection seller and receives the par amount. With cash settlement, the protection buyer receives a payment equal to the difference between par and the recovery value of the reference security, the latter determined from a dealer poll or from price quote services. Contracts are typically subject to physical settlement. This allows protection sellers to benefit from any rebound in prices caused by the rush to purchase deliverable bonds by protection buyers after the realization of the credit event.

In mature markets, trading is highly concentrated on 5 year contracts, and to certain extent, market participants consider these contracts a ‘‘commodity.’’ Usual contract maturities are 1, 2, 5, and 10 years. The coexistence of markets for default swaps and bonds raises the issue on whether prices in the former merely mirrors market expectations already reflected in bond prices. If credit risk were the only factor affecting the CDS spread, with credit risk characterized by the probability of default and the expected loss given default, the CDS spread and the bond spread should be approximately similar, as a portfolio of a default swap contract and a defaultable bond is essentially a risk-free asset.

However, market frictions and some embedded options in the CDS contract, such as the cheapest-to-deliver option, cause CDS spreads and bond spreads to diverge. The difference between these two spreads is referred to as the default swap basis. The default swap basis is positive when the CDS spread trades at a premium relative to the bond spread, and negative when the CDS spread trades at a discount.

Several factors contribute to the widening of the basis, either by widening the CDS spread or tightening the bond spread. Factors that tend to widen the CDS spread include: (1) the cheapest-to-deliver option, since protection sellers must charge a higher premium to account for the possibility of being delivered a less valuable asset in physically settled contracts; (2) the issuance of new bonds and/or loans, as increased hedging by market makers in the bond market pushes up the price of protection, and the number of potential cheapest-to-deliver assets increases; (3) the ability to short default swaps rather than bonds when the bond issuer’s credit quality deteriorates, leading to increased protection buying in the market; and (4) bond prices trading less than par, since the protection seller is guaranteeing the recovery of the par amount rather than the lower current bond price.

Factors that tend to tighten bond spreads include: (1) bond clauses allowing the coupon to step up if the issue is downgraded, as they provide additional benefits to the bondholder not enjoyed by the protection buyer and (2) the zero-lower bound for default swap premiums causes the basis to be positive when bond issuers can trade below the LIBOR curve, as is often the case for higher rated issues.

Similarly, factors that contribute to the tightening of the basis include: (1) existence of greater counterparty risk to the protection buyer than to the protection seller, so buyers are compensated by paying less than the bond spread; (2) the removal of funding risk for the protection seller, as selling protection is equivalent to funding the asset at LIBOR. Less risk demands less compensation and hence, a tightening in the basis; and (3) the increased supply of structured products such as CDS-backed collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), as they increase the supply of protection in the market.

Movements in the basis depend also on whether the market is mainly dominated by high cost investors or low cost investors. A long credit position, i.e., holding the credit risk, can be obtained either by selling protection or by financing the purchase of the risky asset. The CDS remains a viable alternative if its premium does not exceed the difference between the asset yield and the funding cost. The higher the funding cost, the lower the premium and hence, the tighter the basis. Thus, when the market share of low cost investors is relatively high and the average funding costs are below LIBOR, the basis tends to widen. Finally, relative liquidity also plays a role in determining whether the basis narrows or widens, as investors need to be compensated by wider spreads in the less liquid market. Hence, if the CDS market is more liquid than the corresponding underlying bond market (cash market), the basis will narrow and vice versa.