Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO)

Collateralized Debt Obligation Definition

Collateralized debt obligation (CDO) is a Structured product used by banks to unburden themselves of risk, and this is done by pooling all debt assets (including loans, corporate bonds, and mortgages) to form an investable instrument (slices/trances) which are then sold to investors ready to assume the underlying risk.

How does Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) Work?

Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO) creation can be understood as a 5-step process:

Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO)

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Step #1 – Pooled Assets

Banks prepare a list of all the pooled assets (secured and unsecured) like car loans, mortgage loans, commercial loans, etc. that can be included a part of CDOs

Step #2 – Banks form a diversified portfolio

Once the list of pooled assets is prepared, than the Bank started with an aggregation of various debt assets, such as Loans issued corporates and individuals, Corporate bonds invested in, Mortgages, and other debt instruments like credit card receivables.

Step #3 – Investment Banks

A Bank may rope in an investment bank to sell this diversified portfolio

Step #4 – Formation of Tranches

The cash inflows from the portfolio created are sliced into the number of investable tranches. These tranches are characterized by a degree of riskiness. The tranches created are classified as:

  1. “super senior,” the safest and first one to receive the payouts. But, have the lowest interest rate
  2. mezzanine financingMezzanine FinancingMezzanine financing is a type of financing that combines the characteristics of debt and equity financing by granting lenders the right to convert their loan into equity in the event of a default (only after other senior debts are paid off).read more,” moderate risk, and a bit higher interest rate
  3. “equity”/ ”toxic waste,” junior trancheJunior TrancheA junior tranche is a type of unsecured debt that is deemed riskier yet pays a high interest rate. It is also known as a mezzanine tranche and it absorbs any losses accrued or gains on the value of more, most risky and offers the highest interest rate. The payouts are made after all payouts are made for super senior and mezzanine tranches

Step #5 – Selling of Tranches to Investors.

Depending on the risk appetiteRisk AppetiteRisk appetite refers to the amount, rate, or percentage of risk that an individual or organization (as determined by the Board of Directors or management) is willing to accept in exchange for its plan, objectives, and more of various investor groups, these tranches are offered. The most senior tranche is often sold to institutions looking for highly-rated instruments, such as pension funds. The lowest rated tranches are often retained by the CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligations) issuers. This gives the bank an incentive to monitor the loan.

Mezzanine tranches are often bought by other banks and financial institutions.

This entire process of aggregation of assets and slicing them and selling it off to appropriate investors is known as securitization. The bank or the institution assuming the role of CDO issuer is known as Originating Institution. And this entire model is known as the originate-to-distribute model.

Important Terms and Differentiation from Similar Products

Below are the important terms related to Collateralized Debt Obligation.

#1 – CDOs and CMOs

Collateralized Mortgage ObligationCollateralized Mortgage ObligationCollateralized Mortgage Obligations (CMOs) are a debt-security type that combines many mortgages & sell them as a single investment. Cash flow occurs when debtors repay the loans, following which the CMO investors get their returns. read more, as the name suggests, is a structured product that pools in mortgage loans and slice them into tranches of different risk profiles, as explained in the previous section. CDOs, on the other hand, can have loans (home/student/auto, etc.), corporate bonds, mortgages, and credit card receivables, thereby expanding the choice of instruments for forming the portfolio.

#2 – CDOs and MBS

MBS or the Mortgage-backed securities are the earliest form of structured products, formally introduced in the early 80s. Structurally MBS and CDOs are similar to CDO being more complex. MBS have repackaging of mortgages into investable instruments. Based on the type of mortgage repackaged, MBS are of majorly two types: RMBS (Residential MBS) and CMBS (Commercial MBS)

#3 – CDOs and ABS

ABS or the Asset-backed SecurityAsset-backed SecurityAsset-backed Securities (ABS) is an umbrella term used to refer to a kind of security that derives its value from a pool of assets, such as bonds, home loans, car loans, or even credit card more, is similar to MBS, with the only difference that the pool of assets comprises of all debt assets other than Mortgages. CDO is a type of ABS which includes mortgages as well in the pool of assets.

#4 – CLOs and CBOs

CLOs and CBOs are subclassifications of CDO. CLOs are collateralized loan obligations that are made using bank loans. CBOs are a collateral bond obligation which is made using corporate bonds.

There are lesser-known CDO classifications as well, Structured finance back CDOs having ABS/RMBS/CMBS as underlying and Cash CDOs with cash market debt instrumentsDebt InstrumentsDebt instruments provide finance for the company's growth, investments, and future planning and agree to repay the same within the stipulated time. Long-term instruments include debentures, bonds, GDRs from foreign investors. Short-term instruments include working capital loans, short-term more.

Collateralized Debt Obligations and Subprime Mortgage Crisis 2008

The financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, often called the subprime crisis, had several factors, ultimately leading to a collateral failure of financial systems. Among various causes, CDOs played an important role. The crisis started with a housing bubble1, which majorly proliferated because of the availability of cheap credit and widespread use of the Originate-to-distribute model, burst around 2006 and 2007, and led to a liquidity squeeze.

The originate-to-distribute model and securitization, i.e., use of CDOs/ CMOs, etc. became popular for the following reasons:

  1. A low-interest rate on mortgages: Originating institutions were in a position to issue mortgages at a low-interest rate by slicing it off and spreading the risk among willing investors
  2. A high rating of CDOs helped banks to meet lower capital charge requirements of Basel I and II without affecting the risk profile.

Commercial papersCommercial PapersCommercial Paper is a money market instrument that is used to obtain short-term funding and is often issued by investment-grade banks and corporations in the form of a promissory more were issued, and short term repurchase agreements (both of which are ideally short-term instruments) were done to fund the investments in structured products. The months of July August 2007 were specifically important as most of the commercial papers were maturing in this period. Banks tried ReposReposA repurchase agreement or repo is a short-term borrowing for individuals who deal in government securities. Such an agreement can happen between multiple parties into three types- specialized delivery, held-in-custody repo and third-party more and issuance of Commercial papers to meet the liquidity requirements at redemptions, but the impact was so widespread as all major banks were facing the same problem, that the dollar lending rates rose as high as 6/7 %.

Faced with huge losses, banks, and financial institutions with heavy investments in structured products were forced to liquidate the assets at very low prices. This further led to bankruptcies filed by prominent banks like Lehman Brothers, American home mortgage investment corp. etc. and leading to intervention and financial restructuring by International Monetary Fund in October 2009


In simple words, the rise and demise of CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations) turned out to be a cyclical process, initially reaching the top because of its inherent benefits, but ultimately collapsing and leading to one of the largest financial crises in recent times. CDOs are considered highly astute financial instruments that created cheap credit market infused liquidity, and freed up capital for lenders but ultimately collapsed because of a lack of comprehensive understanding of the systemic riskSystemic RiskSystemic risk is the probability or unquantified risk of an event that could trigger the downfall of an entire industry or an economy. It happens when capital borrowers like banks, big companies, and other financial institutions lose capital provider's trust like depositors, investors, and capital more it may cause.

This has been a Guide to Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO) and how it works. Here we also discuss how CDOs led to Subprime Mortgage Crisis in 2008. You can learn more about financing from the following articles –

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