Economic Catastrophe Bonds
Executive Summary — Pooling economic assets into large portfolios and tranching them into sequential cash-flow claims has become a big business, generating record profits for both the Wall Street originators and the agencies that rate these securities. This paper by business economics doctoral student Jakub Jurek and HBS professors Joshua Coval and Erik Stafford investigates the pricing and risks of instruments created as a result of recent structured finance activities. It demonstrates that senior collateralized debt obligation (CDO) tranches have significantly different systematic risk exposures than their credit rating-matched, single-name counterparts, and should therefore command different risk premia. Key concepts include:
- Investors in senior CDO tranches are grossly undercompensated for the highly systematic nature of the risks they bear. An investor willing to assume the economic risks inherent in senior CDO tranches can, with equivalent economic exposure, earn roughly 3 times more compensation by writing out-of-the-money put spreads on the market.
- Credit rating agencies do not provide customers with adequate information for pricing. They are willing to certify senior CDO tranches as "safe" when, from an asset pricing perspective, they are quite the opposite.
The central insight of asset pricing is that a security's value depends on both its distribution of payoffs across economic states and state prices. In fixed income markets, many investors focus exclusively on estimates of expected payoffs, such as credit ratings, without considering the state of the economy in which default is likely to occur. Such investors are likely to be attracted to securities whose payoffs resemble those of economic catastrophe bonds-bonds that default only under severe economic conditions. We show that many structured finance instruments can be characterized as economic catastrophe bonds, but offer far less compensation than alternatives with comparable payoff profiles. We argue that this difference arises from the willingness of rating agencies to certify structured products with a low default likelihood as "safe" and from a large supply of investors who view them as such. Download on the Social Science Research Network.