Tranche: Definition in Finance, Purposes, and Examples

What Is a Tranche?

"Tranche" is a French word meaning "slice" or "portion." In the world of investing, it is used to describe a security that can be split up into smaller pieces and subsequently sold to investors. Tranches are common with mortgage-backed securities (MBS), which are a basket of mortgage loans that are pooled together for investors to buy.

Key Takeaways

  • Tranches are a collection of securities that are separated and grouped based on various characteristics and sold to investors.
  • Tranches can have different maturities, credit ratings, and yields–or interest rates. 
  • Tranches are common with mortgage-backed securities, which are a basket of mortgage loans that are pooled together for investors to buy.

What Are Tranches?

Understanding Tranches

Tranches are a collection of securities that are separated and grouped based on various characteristics and sold to investors. Tranches can have different maturities, credit ratings, and yields—or interest rates. A credit rating is an assessment of the creditworthiness of the borrower or issuer of a particular debt or financial obligation.

The financial instruments that can be broken up into tranches include loans, bonds, mortgages, and insurance policies. Tranches are typically used in the credit and debt markets in a process called securitization, which divides up various types of debt instruments and packaged into funds to be sold to investors who want to earn the interest rate on the debt. Investment bankers can create a single basket of loans that have similar characteristics that appeal to specific investors.

For example, several baskets of loans could be offered that have varying interest rates. Investors who want to earn a 6% yield could opt for that particular tranche of loans (see below), while other investors could opt for the tranche that pays a 3.5% yield.

Example of loan tranches with different yields.
Example of loan tranches with different yields. Investopedia

It's important to note that with any financial product, if you get something, you usually have to give something up. In the example above, each yield would likely come with its own specific maturity date and credit rating, which is a measurement of the risk of investing in those loans.

As a result, the basket of loans yielding 6% per year would likely have a longer maturity date or a higher risk of default versus the lower-yielding investments. In other words, investors would demand to be adequately compensated–a higher yield–for holding the investment longer or for taking on more risk than the lower-rate investments.

Not only do tranches of debt instruments have different credit ratings, but they can also have different payout scenarios if the issuer goes into default. Senior tranches, for example, typically have higher credit ratings and are paid before junior tranches in the event of the issuer's bankruptcy or liquidation.

Example of Tranches

Investors with various needs could invest in different tranches of the same collateralized mortgage obligation or mortgage-backed security. Let's say that we have four investors who want a similar mortgage-backed security but with different maturity dates.

The portfolio could be split into tranches based on the maturity dates so that there would be tranches maturing in one year, five years, and 20 years. The investor who doesn't need access to cash anytime soon could invest in the 20-year tranche. 

However, the investors that are in retirement and need the cash in the short-term could opt for the one-year and two-year maturities. The investor who is in pre-retirement, meaning it's only five years away, could opt for the tranche with the five-year maturity.

Examples of tranches with mortgage loans
Examples of tranches with mortgage loans. Investopedia 

Tranches allow investors to structure their investment earnings and income to match their cash flow needs. Investors who need the cash sooner could buy a shorter maturity investment, while those who have a longer time horizon can invest in the longer-maturity tranches. Although investments can be broken up into tranches based on maturity and interest rates, they can also be grouped by domestic and international investments.

Tranches in the Mortgage Market

Mortgage-backed securities (MBS), such as collateralized mortgage obligations (CMOs), can often be found in the form of a tranche. These securities can be partitioned based on their maturities and credit ratings to appeal to different buyers.

A mortgage-backed security is an investment vehicle that contains a basket of mortgages that are pooled together for investors to buy. A mortgage-backed security is similar to a bond in the sense that it pays an interest rate. However, the rate paid from a bond is typically based on one debt instrument.

A mortgage-backed security, on the other hand, pays a rate based on the interest rates of a collection of home loans in the fund—minus any fees or costs to operate the fund. A mortgage-backed security is an asset-backed security, meaning it is only as safe as the assets backing the loans.

Depending on an investor's preference, a tranche of home loans could be purchased via an MBS that matches the investor's desired time period, interest rate, and risk tolerance.

Tranches in the Public Disclosure

Tranches of debt instruments, including mortgage loans, became popularized during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Financial institutions packaged tranches of mortgage loans into various funds, such as mortgage-backed securities, to be sold to investors who were looking for interest income.

However, many of the credit risks—or the risk of loss—associated with the loans within these funds were not adequately disclosed, nor were the holdings of the funds fully understood by investors. Many of the loans were found to be far riskier than had been advertised. In some cases, the credit agencies had applied a much higher credit rating to the funds, which contained subprime mortgages. Subprime lending focuses on higher-risk borrowers with little or poor credit history. Some funds even contained below investment-grade-assets such as junk bonds.

In 2008, the financial crisis moved into full swing with the crash of the U.S. housing market. Many subprime mortgage loans went into default—or nonpayment. As a result, those who had invested in these funds that contained tranches of mortgage loans were saddled with significant losses. 

Tranche FAQs

What Are Tranches in Economics?

When a country is struggling with economic difficulties, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) may step in and offer financial assistance. The IMF provides loans to nations in a series of disbursements or tranches. These credit tranches are often released in phases as a line of credit, which is typically contingent on the receiving country enacting financial reforms, such as paying down debt or cutting government spending.

What Is Tranching of Credit Risk?

A company's bonds or debt securities can have varying levels of credit risk, depending on the maturity and other factors. The bonds are often broken out into tranches based on that risk, with senior tranches having the first lien against a company's assets in the event the company dissolves or goes bankrupt. Junior tranches might have no assets backing them or unsecured and would, therefore, have more risk associated with them. As a result, the junior tranches of debt might pay a higher interest rate than the senior tranches to help compensate investors for the added credit risk.

What Is Another Word for Tranche?

Tranches are often called classes since bonds might be divided into different classes based on their maturity date, interest rate, or credit rating.

How Do You Use Tranche in a Sentence?

"In the coming months, XYZ company announced that it will issue an offering of $10 million in bonds to be broken up into two tranches of $5 million each."

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