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Understanding Financial Derivatives

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Beware the Toxicity

By Dr. David Edward Marcinko; MBA, CMP™

According to Jeff Coons PhD CFP™ a financial derivative is a security whose value is derived from one or more underlying securities. Derivatives can range from financial securities as simple as a stripped bond, or pooled mortgage, to extremely complex securities customized for a particular investor’s risk management needs. And, some physician-investors know that perhaps the simplest form of derivative is a short-sale, where you can place a bet that some asset you own will go down, so that you are covered whichever way the asset moves. 

Volatile Investment Vehicles

Even though derivative securities in some contexts can be a key source of volatility in the financial markets, these securities may be useful tools in the portfolio management process.  Likewise, just as the basic asset classes discussed in the E-P may be separated into a series of expected cash flows, any given derivative security may be understood as a series of date or event contingent cash flows.

Basic Derivatives

Two basic derivative securities created from more traditional fixed income securities are pooled mortgage securities and strips: 

  1. A stripped security represents either principal or interest payments from some underlying fixed income security.  As an example, a principal-only Treasury strip represents the face value payment of an U.S. Treasury bond, while an income-only Treasury strip represents the right to the coupon payments of a particular U.S. Treasury bond. 
  2. A pooled mortgage security is a derivative security that represents ownership in a collection of mortgages.  An interesting feature of a pooled mortgage security is the principal pay-down, with shares of the pooled mortgage security returned at face value as mortgages are refinanced and/or repaid. Refinancing and prepayment of mortgages tend to happen when the original mortgage rate is above currently available mortgage rates, so pooled mortgages with higher coupon rates will tend to have the greatest prepayment risk.

For example, physician-investors recall the dramatic decline in mortgage rates during 2002 that led to a significant increase in refinancing activity, which in turn resulted in significant prepayment risk for many holders of pooled mortgage securities. The current CDS meltdown, in 2008, is another example.

Credit Default Swaps

A credit default swap (CDS) is a derivative contract in which a buyer makes a series of payments to a seller and, in exchange, receives the right to a payoff if a credit instrument goes into default or, on the occurrence of a specified credit event, for example bankruptcy or restructuring. The associated instrument does not need to be associated with the buyer or the seller of this contract; thus one factor of their “amorphous toxicity” today.

Assessment

Credit default swaps are now the most widely traded form of credit derivative! But, when the smartest financial guys on Wall Street designed derivatives and credit default swaps, they forgot to ask one thing; what if the parties on the other side of the bet don’t have the money to pay up?

Conclusion

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