What was special about the Dead Presidents?

By Felix Salmon
May 12, 2010
reportedly being investigated by the Justice Department were not your garden-variety synthetics:

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The Dead Presidents CDOs now reportedly being investigated by the Justice Department were not your garden-variety synthetics:

One feature of the Morgan Stanley deals was a structure that could increase the magnitude of the bullish investors’ exposures to the underlying mortgage bonds. This feature, which was disclosed in some offering documents, made it more likely that such investors could lose money if the underlying bonds performed poorly.

This bears a family resemblance to what the NYT reported back in December (h/t Alphaville):

Morgan Stanley established a series of CDOs named after United States presidents (Buchanan and Jackson) with an unusual feature: short-sellers could lock in very cheap bets against mortgages, even beyond the life of the mortgage bonds. It was akin to allowing someone paying a low insurance premium for coverage on one automobile to pay the same on another one even if premiums over all had increased because of high accident rates.

I’d love to know more about this feature. I’m not looking for a quick one-sentence summary which can be dropped into a newspaper article, but a detailed explanation of exactly what it was and how it worked. Does anybody have offering documents from Citi or UBS for these deals which might include such a thing?

I think this shows the limitations of print-based journalism, and the long way we have yet to go before newspapers fully embrace the web. Both the WSJ and the NYT give the impression that they have seen and understood the structures in question, and that they’re simply summarizing them in order to make their stories easier to read for a broad audience. That’s fine — but once you’ve done that, do please give the full details online to finance geeks who want to understand the deals on a finer-grained level.

There were lots of synthetic CDOs structured and sold at the end of the subprime boom, but the ones being singled out by regulators and prosecutors seem to be the unusual ones — first the Goldman deal which was created at the behest of John Paulson, and now the Morgan Stanley deal with this mysterious embedded structure. It would be a great service if the news media, rather than just trying to report the news, also published primary documents and full details of what they’re writing about, so the rest of us can come to our own conclusions.

Update: ProPublica has found a bunch of Jackson prospectuses, if somebody fancies reading them.

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