What are Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs), and How Does it Work?

9 min read • Published 25 February 2023
Written by Anuj Agarwal

Many investors prefer making debt instruments investments to generate stable returns. They can facilitate portfolio stability as well as diversification. However, many people want to avoid the risks of direct investments. 

For them, collateralized debt obligations can be an excellent choice. Find out more about this financial asset by reading this blog. 

What is a CDO?

Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) are derivative financial contracts that derive value from a combination of debt instruments. The original borrower may be required to repay the borrowed sum after the loan term. Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) is a derivative security.

Credit rating agencies generally provide these scores based on the creditworthiness of the obligation. The securities with a higher rating, like AAA, have fewer involved risks and thus will give lower returns. Inversely, the CDOs having lower ratings, like B, will have higher risks and, therefore, higher returns on investment.    

How Do CDOs Work?

The development of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) can be broken down into five steps:

  1. Pooled Assets

Banks compile a list of all pooled assets that may be included in CDOs, including secured and unsecured investments, commercial loans, home loans, and car loans.

  1. Creation Of a Diverse Portfolio By the Banks

Following the creation of the list of pooled assets, the bank began by assembling various debt assets, including loans made to both businesses and individuals, investments in corporate bonds, mortgages, and some other debt instruments like credit card receivables.

  1. Investment Banks

A bank could enlist an investment bank to market this diverse portfolio.

  1. Formation of Tranches

The amount of tranches that can be invested in is divided by the cashflows from the newly constructed portfolio. There is a level of risk associated with these tranches. The formed tranches are categorised as follows:

  • “Super senior,” the most secure and the first to get paid, have the lowest interest rate yet.
  • “Mezzanine finance,” with a somewhat higher interest rate and a medium level of risk.
  • The junior tranche’s “equity” or “toxic waste” is the riskiest and gives the highest interest rate. The payments are made following the payment of all super senior and mezzanine tranche payments.
  1. Selling Tranches to Investors

These tranches are based on the risk tolerance of distinct investment groups. Entities searching for highly rated instruments, like pension funds, frequently purchase the most senior tranche. The Collateralized Debt Obligations issuers commonly keep the lowest-rated tranches. This encourages the bank to keep an eye on the loan.

The purchase of mezzanine tranches by other banks and financial organisations is common.

Securitisation refers to gathering assets, dividing them, and selling each piece to the right investors. The Originating Institution is the bank or other organisation acting as the CDO issuer. The originate-to-distribute model is the name given to the complete framework.

Collateralized Debt Obligations’ Rapid Expansion

  • Collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, have been around since the late 1990s, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that they began to expand rapidly. CDOs are a type of asset-backed security, meaning a pool of assets such as mortgage-backed securities, corporate bonds, and other forms of debt backs them. They aim to take on high-risk debt and repackage it into more palatable investments.
  • The rapid expansion of CDOs began in 2001 as investors sought to diversify their portfolios and take advantage of the higher yields that these securities offered. By 2007, the global market for CDOs had reached $1.1 trillion, and their popularity was growing among institutional investors.
  • At the same time, banks were eager to package mortgages into Collateralized Debt Obligations to resell them to investors, allowing them to free up capital for additional lending. This only further contributed to the rapid expansion of CDOs during this period.
  • Unfortunately, the characteristics that made CDOs attractive to investors also made them risky. Mortgages with low underwriting standards and a high risk of default often backed the securities. Furthermore, many rating agencies assigned them overly optimistic ratings, thus allowing for the further proliferation of these securities.
  • In 2008, when the housing bubble burst, these risks became too apparent, and CDOs collapsed along with the rest of the housing market. As a result, investors and banks alike were hit hard by losses incurred from these investments, causing a significant downturn in the global financial markets. Despite this crash, CDOs still exist and can be used to invest in various types of debt.

Types of Collateralized Debt Obligations

CDOs can be classified into the following types depending on the kind of underlying debt security:

TypesUnderlying Securities
Collateralized Loan Obligations (CLOs)Leveraged bank loans
Collateralized Synthetic Obligations (CSOs)Credit derivatives contracts
Structured Finance CDOs (SF CDOs)Structured funds
Collateralized Bond Obligations (CBOs)Leveraged fixed-income assets
Synthetic CDOsCredit default swaps

Advantages of investing in CDOs

Collateralized Debt Obligations have advantages and disadvantages, like all other types of assets. The subprime mortgage and housing bubble crises were caused by their complexity. The complexity made them hard to appraise and vulnerable to repayment risk, especially from subprime borrowers.

There are, nevertheless, the key advantages.

  • High liquidity

There are a large number of buyers and sellers that trade using collateralised debt obligations. Thus, you can quickly sell off your holdings in the secondary market whenever you feel like exiting your position. 

  • Diversification of risk

These investment vehicles contain a pool of debt instruments as their underlying asset. Thus, they serve as an excellent means to diversify the risks in your portfolio. 

  • Priority for repayment 

Another significant benefit of investing in CDOs is the repayment priority you can get by purchasing senior-category debt instruments. Although the return rates are lower than the other options, it is an excellent choice if you are a low-risk investor.  

Subprime Mortgage Crisis and CDOs

The 2007 and 2008 financial crisis, often known as the subprime crisis, was caused by several causes that finally caused financial systems to fail as collateral. Among other factors, Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) were a significant factor. The housing bubble, which greatly expanded due to the availability of low-cost credit and the wide use of the Originate-to-distribute model, collapsed around 2006 and 2007 and resulted in a liquidity crunch at the beginning of the crisis.

The use of CDOs, CMOs, and other forms of securitisation, such as the originate-to-distribute model, gained popularity for the following reasons:

  • A low mortgage interest rate: By dividing the risk among willing investors, originating institutions could provide mortgages at a cheap interest rate.
  • Without changing the risk profile, a high rating of CDOs assisted banks in meeting Basel I and II’s lower capital charge requirements.

Commercial papers and short-term repurchase agreements, both appropriate short-term instruments, were executed to finance the investments in structured products. July and August of 2007 were especially significant because this was when most commercial papers matured. The impact was significant because the major banks dealt with the same issue: dollar loan rates increased by 6/7%. Banks used repos and the issuing of commercial papers to meet the liquidity requirements at redemptions.

Banks and other financial institutions with significant interests in structured products were obliged to sell the assets at extremely low prices due to their massive losses. As a result, notable institutions, including Lehman Brothers and American Home Mortgage Investment Corp., filed for bankruptcy, prompting the International Monetary Fund to intervene and restructure the financial system in October 2009.

Disadvantages of investing in CDOs

  • Difficulty in assessing returns

As you already know, the pooling procedure for collateralised debt obligations is complex. Moreover, there needs to be more transparency in the financial market concerning these assets. 

Thus, it becomes tough for investors to assess the underlying securities’ price movements and the risk and return potential. 

  • Devaluation risks 

As the underlying assets for CDOs are debt securities, in case any of these assets default or depreciate in creditworthiness, there can be a negative impact on the asset value. Furthermore, as these investment vehicles have a fixed interest rate, their values can depreciate with rising interest rates.

Key Points

  • Banks bundle loans into “collateralized debt obligations” (CDOs) that are then sold to investors.
  • As a result of the consolidation of all loans, CDOs are challenging to appraise.
  • CDOs initially fueled the economy before spiraling out of control and causing the 2007 financial crisis.
  • CDOs had lost appeal as an investment scheme, but by 2012, they had already begun to regain popularity with slightly altered structures.

Final Words

In simple words, the rise and fall of CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations) are a cyclical process, rising to the top initially due to its inherent advantages but ultimately collapsing and causing one of the biggest financial catastrophes in recent memory. 

CDOs are seen as brilliant financial structures that bring liquidity into the market, free up capital for lenders, and produce inexpensive credit. However, they failed due to a lack of a thorough grasp of the systemic risks it may pose.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is CDOs’ role in a financial crisis?

During a financial crisis, a decrease in the value of the Collateralized Debt Obligations’ underlying commodities—primarily mortgages—leads to financial ruin. Institutional investors find CDOs to be a lucrative investment because they pay more than T-Bills.

Who created the CDO?

Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. Bankers invented collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) in 1987. In the credit derivatives market, where the value of a derivative is “derived” from the value of other assets, CDOs became a significant player within ten years.

Is CDO dangerous?

CDOs are a practical instrument for investment banks to spread risk and produce more liquid capital, despite being risky and unsuitable for all investors.

How come investors purchase CDOs?

Institutional investors who purchase the CDO include hedge funds, insurance firms, pension funds, and investment managers. These investors frequently invest in CDOs, expecting higher returns than their fixed-income portfolios with comparable maturity.

Why are CDOs suitable investments for institutional investors?

Collateralized debt obligations come with an investment opportunity for different types of risk profiles. Moreover, they tend to provide returns at a higher rate in comparison to other assets with the same investment horizon. Thus, they are preferred forms of investment for institutional investors.

How to invest in CDOs?

Direct investments in CDOs are not possible if you are a retail investor. However, you can always allocate your funds to an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that deals in CDO investments.

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Anuj Agarwal

Investment Principal
Anuj is an investment professional with a demonstrated history of working in Debt Capital Markets. He has completed his B.Com (Hons) in St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata and holds PGDM (Finance) degree from GIM. He is currently working as Investments Principal at Wint Wealth. He has been working in the debt capital market space for the past 4+ years and is also an NISM certified mutual fund expert.

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