CNBC: The sequel to the global financial crisis is here
The central culprit this time is the collateralised loan obligation. Like its earlier esoteric cousins, a CLO bundles risky low-grade loans into attractive packages and high credit ratings. In May, there were two deals of more than $1bn each, and experts estimate that $75bn worth are coming this year. Antares Capital recently closed a $2.1bn CLO, the largest in the US since 2006 and the third-largest in history. Although most of the loans underlying these deals are of "junk" status, more than half the new debt is rated triple A. Sound familiar?
During the early 2000s, similar highly rated deals called collateralised debt obligations were popular. At first, they seemed harmless, or at least not so big that their collapse could cause financial contagion. But when regulators ignored their growth, they became more opaque and more profitable, with credit ratings disconnected from reality. Like cracks in a building's foundation, the risks seemed minor at first. But high ratings hid the instability of the entire structure. Until it was too late.
Dodd-Frank was supposed to stop these credit-rating ploys. But the Securities and Exchange Commission has permitted the agencies to dodge that law. While Dodd-Frank imposed liability on the agencies for false ratings, the SEC exempted them. Likewise, Congress barred the agencies from getting inside information about issuers they rate, but the SEC permitted that, too. As CLOs grow, the cracks are spreading again.