Thursday, March 25, 2010

We're Riskier Than Who???!!!

MARCH 24, 2010, 4:47 P.M. ET
U.S. Is Riskier Than Euro Zone; So Says CDS Market

NEW YORK -- Something troubling has occurred in the market for default protection on the debt of the world's biggest borrower.
As the folks at Standard Poor's Valuation and Risk Strategies division noted in a research note Monday, the difference between the spread on U.S. sovereign credit default swaps and an equivalent benchmark for AAA-rated euro-zone sovereigns flipped into positive territory March 12. As U.S. CDS spreads expanded to their widest levels in two years, that cross-region gap blew out to 5.7 basis points last Friday before narrowing to 4.7 Tuesday.
Wider CDS spreads indicate that sellers of insurance against a particular issuer's default are charging more for it. In effect, the positive U.S.-versus-euro zone spread means investors think the risk of a U.S. default--however remote--is greater than that on euro-denominated sovereign debt.
So much for the view that low inflation and loose monetary policy make for a rosier debt outlook for Treasurys than for the debt of crisis-hit euro-zone sovereigns.
"We've seen CDS on U.S. Treasurys break with euro CDS before, but never to the degree we have here," said Michael Thompson, head of research for S&P's
Valuation and Risk Strategies group. "If we sit on this precipice for a time, I think a lot of market participants would see this as a bit of a shot across the bow, a bit of a wakeup" for anyone who's complacent about U.S. debt.
Wouldn't it also challenge U.S. Treasurys' status as the so-called "risk free" benchmark? S&P didn't go there. But the report did say the trend "reflects increasing market anxiety surrounding the U.S.'s credit quality." In other words, a fiscal deficit worth 10% of gross domestic product--in the absence of a clear plan to reduce it -- matters.
My first instinct was to dismiss the trend as an anomaly fueled by the technical quirks of an illiquid sovereign CDS market, where a conflicting array of investment strategies can confuse price signals. Some market participants use CDS contracts to hedge existing positions in underlying bonds, others sell default insurance as an alternative exposure to those bonds, while still more seek to extract arbitrage profits from playing between the two.
What's more, the AAA euro-zone benchmark doesn't reflect bets on a single sovereign's debt but rather a basket of the region's six remaining AAA-rated countries: Germany, France, Austria, Finland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
Disentangling its message on default risk could be messy. And what, after all, can a current-day contract on a future Treasurys default tell U.S. when a U.S. breach on its financial obligations is virtually inconceivable? [The government would pay for its debt with inflation long before opting for the blunt instrument of default.]
Yet, notes Mr. Thompson, "there is real money changing hands there [in CDS markets]. And if there is real money changing hands, there has to be real value ... The market is expressing some valuable information."
Short-term moves of a basis point or two can be attributed to technical factors, but such a lasting shift in the two regions' CDS relationship "is not technical," Mr. Thompson said. "I certainly wouldn't ignore it."
Thompson's team also noted that the deterioration in U.S. default swaps meant that S&P's "market-derived signal" dropped to 'aa+,' its lowest level in two years. The historical series for that indicator is based on an established correlation with actual S&P ratings.
There's no indication that S&P's separate ratings division is about to downgrade the U.S. 's vital 'AAA' rating. But over time, ratings analysts cannot stay blind to market signals like this one. As its weighs the stimulus needs of a still-fragile U.S. economy against future risks to debt servicing costs, the U.S. government can't ignore market signals either.

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