One of Wall Street's biggest whipping boys since the post-Lehman days, culminating with the insanity in credit markets in early March, have undoubtedly been correlation desks. These trading outfits, which hit their heyday in 2004-2005, when CDS spreads were nice and tight, and negative convexity would at most bring a 20-30bps widening, would repackage securitization tranches whereby usually they kept the senior and equity wrap around a mezzanine piece, which was in turn sold to investors. Buyers of mezz tranches, whose junior and senior layers would become impaired after a 15% and 30% cumulative losses, respecitvely, saw what the definition of a world of pain is first hand recently, and effectively shut down the correlation business at many major banks. But not all.
As Debtwire reports, several correlations desks made a killing over the recent CDS blow up: most notably Natixis (OTCPK:NTXFF) and the omnipresent Goldman Sachs (GS). According to Debtwire's Nicoletta Kotsianas:
Correlation trading desks at a few firms, including Natixis and Goldman Sachs, have been buying up CIT protection on the cheap since January to hedge risk in the instruments they structure and trade...CIT stood out to some traders, both because of its exposure to the credit crunch and its ubiquitous placement in the bespokes, said two correlation traders. Just six months ago, jump to default exposure to the name averaged roughly €50MM for many correlation desks, estimated two of the trader sources... One correlation trader who runs a mid-sized bespoke book said that he bought $85MM in short dated protection at an average price of 12 pts up in January and throughout the spring. Five-year protection on the name was quoted at 34 on 9 July but ballooned to the high 50s by 20 July when it became clear the government would not bail out the asset-based lender. Much of that price movement originated from other correlation desks rushing to hedge their jump risk.
So whose CDS will Goldman's correlated tentacles blow up next? According to Debtwire, it is Sallie Mae's turn:
Sallie Mae is the next name in correlation traders' crosshairs, said two correlation traders, an analyst at a boutique brokerage and a sellside desk analyst. Five-year protection on Sallie Mae trades at 20 pts upfront, reflecting relatively low risk of default in post-credit crunch terms. Though not as widely held in bespokes as CIT, nor as distressed, Sallie Mae caught attention in recent weeks as correlation desks braced for the company to be downgraded to junk, all the sources said. Standard & Poor's last week placed the ratings on credit watch following a vote by the House Of Representatives Education and Labor Committee to pass a bill that would eliminate the origination of federal student loans by private lenders after July 2010... Offers to sell protection from dealers grew scarce this week and several dealers have faded offers, in a sign that not all desks are covered for Sallie Mae jump risk, aid three traders. Some bids did get picked up this week but the market is now 18/20 upfront on the contracts as opposed to 691 bps on July 19, according to a broker and data from Markit."
And who wants to bet which way Goldman's notoriously non-rumor spreading correlation desk is axed. Look to the student lender for some major fireworks over the next few weeks.