NewYorkUniversity
LawReview
Current Issue

Volume 94, Number 5

November 2019

Engineered Credit Default Swaps: Innovative or Manipulative?

Gina-Gail S. Fletcher

Credit default swaps (CDS) are, once again, making waves. Maligned for their role in the 2008 financial crisis and condemned by the Vatican, investors are once more utilizing CDS to achieve results of questionable market benefit. A CDS is a financial contract that allows investors to “bet” on whether a borrower will default on its loan. However, rather than waiting to see how their bets pan out, some CDS counterparties are collaborating with financially distressed borrowers to guarantee the profitability of their CDS positions—“engineering” the CDS’ outcome. Under the CDS contract, these collaborations are not prohibited, yet they have roiled the CDS market, leading some market participants to view the collaborations as a sign that CDS are little more than a rigged game. Conversely, some view “engineered CDS transactions” as an innovative form of financing for distressed companies. As engineered CDS transactions proliferate in the market, it becomes increasingly prudent to look beyond their contractual acceptability to assess whether, from a legal point of view, these transactions are permissible. 

Engineered CDS transactions demonstrate the challenges that the existing legal and non-legal framework face in effectively responding to new forms of market distortion. This Article examines the costs and benefits of engineered CDS transactions on the market as a precursor to determining whether legal intervention is needed. Assessment of the relative costs and benefits of engineered transactions indicates that despite their innovativeness, engineered CDS transactions are largely detrimental to the markets because they impose costs on actors unaffiliated with the CDS market and, more broadly, destroy public trust in the financial markets. Yet, despite their associated harms, legally, engineered transactions exist in a gray space. This Article analyzes the phenomenon of engineered CDS transactions, assessing the capacity of applicable legal frameworks, private standards, and market discipline to address these transactions, and finds each to be lacking. Consequently, this Article proposes a range of responses, including modernization of the existing anti- manipulation framework, to mitigate the harm and collateral consequences that stem from engineered CDS transactions.