Are the Banks (And ETN Issuers) Safe Now?

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Includes: BAC, BCS, C, DB, GS, JPM, MS
by: IndexUniverse

By Paul Amery

The cost of insuring against the default of major financial institutions has reached its lowest level since June 2008, according to the Counterparty Risk Index from Credit Derivatives Research LLC.

The chart below shows the Counterparty Risk Index (CRI) history since the beginning of 2008. The index is an unweighted average of the credit default swap spreads of 14 major financial institutions. The left-hand scale gives the cost (in basis points) of insuring against default for a five-year term.

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The three big spikes on the chart mark the near-failure of Bear Stearns (in March 2008), the Lehman default (September 2008) and renewed concerns over bank safety at the market’s nadir in March 2009.

If crises appeared at six-monthly intervals since last spring, this time we appear to have broken out of the cycle.

What about the individual banks that make up the index? Here is a chart, courtesy of CMA Datavision, of the CDS spreads of the U.S. bank members of the index, plus Barclays and Deutsche Bank, the leading players in the U.S. exchange-traded note market.

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Citigroup now ranks as the riskiest U.S. bank, and JP Morgan as the least risky, though it’s fair to say that the CDS spreads have converged significantly and there is far less difference between individual names than there was a year ago.

For the record, here are the levels from earlier today, ranked from least to most expensive to insure against default: JP Morgan (NYSE:JPM) (72bp), Barclays (NYSE:BCS) (76bp), Deutsche Bank (NYSE:DB) (82bp), Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) (107bp), Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) (120bp), Merrill Lynch (137bp), Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS) (140bp) and Citigroup (NYSE:C) (200bp).

(The fact that the Merrill Lynch CDS trades at a slight premium to that of Bank of America, its owner, is interesting. This reflects speculation that the broker may yet be spun off from the parent bank, in which case the CDS would follow the reference entity, Dave Klein of Credit Derivatives Research told me.)

The levels should matter to exchange-traded product investors: All of these banks except Citigroup underwrite exchange-traded notes.

Is the worst now over? As Gillian Tett noted in a column in last week’s Financial Times, the concentration of overall (gross) risk in the credit derivatives market amongst the leading banks has actually risen since the AIG bailout of last September, and regulators are still finding it difficult to assess whether banks are handling their net risk exposures sensibly.

And, in what sounds like the ultimate reinsurance spiral, banks have become net sellers of protection on sovereign debt; hardly reassuring if one remembers that the banks are themselves propped up by the governments concerned. Lloyd’s (NYSE:LYG), anyone?

So, while the reduction in overall default risk so far this year will come as a reassurance to investors, these are charts that are worth keeping an eye on.