As we reported yesterday, the New York Attorney General and the Southern District of New York have teamed up to investigate allegations of wrongdoing with respect to credit-default swaps. The AG’s office is now reported to have subpoenaed trading data and communications from several interdealer brokers, small firms that facilitated the swaps and other trades.
A CDS is a form of insurance, though contractual in nature and not regulated. Essentially, the CDS buyer wants to protect a debt investment or asset. In return for fees from the buyer, the CDS seller agrees to make a payment if the underlying debtor defaults or goes bankrupt.
CDS contracts enabled the securitization of subprime mortgages into tranches that could be rated as investment-grade. If underlying asset values dropped, the CDS payment would still net a profit. Presuming, of course, that the CDS seller actually had the wherewithal to make the necessary payment.
Interdealer brokers earned fees from facilitating CDS deals between financial institutions. Buyers and sellers need to keep their bargaining positions secret from each other, which makes direct negotiation difficult. For a fee, an interdealer broker puts buyers and sellers together, while keeping the identities of the parties a secret from each other.
Law enforcement is now investigating whether interdealer brokers were breaking the rules, and disclosing information that they existed for the purpose of keeping secret. Also under investigation is the possibility that interdealer brokers were giving out false information, so as to manipulate CDS prices. These CDS prices in turn had a huge effect on the share values and bond prices of major financial institutions.