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Europe’s Financial Alchemy

CHICAGO – It is universally recognized that a key factor underlying the 2007-2008 financial crisis was the diffusion of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), the infamous special-purpose vehicles that transformed lower-rated debt into highly rated debt. As these structures lost popularity on Wall Street, however, they gained popularity on the other side of the Atlantic.

After all, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), created by the eurozone countries last May, is the largest CDO ever created. As with CDOs, the EFSF was marketed as a way to reduce risk. Unfortunately, the outcome could be similar: the entire banking system sent into a tailspin.

CDOs are a form of financial alchemy: special-purpose vehicles that buy the financial equivalent of lead (low-rated mortgaged-backed securities) and finance themselves mostly with the financial equivalent of gold (highly sought-after AAA bonds). This transformation is based on one sound principle and two shaky ones.

The sound principle is excess collateral. If there is $120 of collateral guaranteeing a $100 bond, the bond is safer, no doubt. How much safer, however, depends upon the returns on the pool of bonds that compose the CDO.