What Is Credit Default Insurance?

Credit default insurance is a financial agreement—usually a credit derivative such as a credit default swap (CDS) or a total return swap—to mitigate the risk of loss from default by a borrower or bond issuer.

Credit default insurance allows for the transfer of credit risk without the transfer of an underlying asset.

Key Takeaways

  • Credit default insurance is a financial agreement that is used to mitigate the risk of loss from default by a borrower or bond issuer.
  • Credit default insurance allows for the transfer of credit risk without the transfer of an underlying asset.
  • Credit default swaps (CDS) and total return swaps are types of credit default insurance.
  • A credit default swap (CDS) is a financial derivative that allows an investor to "swap" or offset their credit risk with that of another investor.
  • A total return swap is a swap agreement in which one party makes payments based on a set rate, either fixed or variable, while the other party makes payments based on the return of an underlying asset, which includes both the income it generates and any capital gains.

Understanding Credit Default Insurance

The most widely used type of credit default insurance is a credit default swap (CDS). Credit default swaps transfer credit risk only; they do not transfer interest rate risk. A CDS is a financial derivative that allows an investor to "swap" or offset their credit risk with that of another investor.

In effect, a CDS is insurance against non-payment. Through a CDS, a buyer can reduce the risk of their investment by shifting all or a portion of that risk onto an insurance company, or other CDS seller, in exchange for a periodic fee. For example, if a lender is worried that a borrower is going to default on a loan, the lender could use a CDS to offset or swap that risk.

In this way, the buyer of a credit default swap receives credit protection, whereas the seller of the swap guarantees the creditworthiness of the debt security. The buyer of a credit default swap will be entitled to the par value of the contract by the seller of the swap, should the issuer default on payments.

If the debt issuer does not default and all goes well, the CDS buyer will end up losing some money, but the buyer stands to lose a much greater proportion of their investment if the issuer defaults, and they have not bought a CDS. As such, the more the holder of a security thinks its issuer is likely to default, the more desirable a CDS is and the more the premium may be considered a worthwhile investment.

History of Credit Default Swaps

Credit default swaps have existed since 1994. CDSs are not publicly traded, and they aren't required to be reported to a government agency. CDS data can be used by financial professionals, regulators, and the media to monitor how the market views the credit risk of any entity on which a CDS is available, which can be compared to that provided by the credit rating agencies, including Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's.

Most CDSs are documented using standard forms drafted by the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA), although there are many variants. In addition to the basic, single-name swaps, there are basket default swaps (BDSs), index CDSs, funded CDSs (also called credit-linked notes), as well as loan-only credit default swaps (LCDS). In addition to corporations and governments, the reference entity can include a special purpose vehicle issuing asset-backed securities.

Credit Default Swaps vs. Total Return Swaps

Whereas credit default swaps transfer credit risk only, total return swaps transfer both credit and interest rate risk. A total return swap is a swap agreement in which one party makes payments based on a set rate, either fixed or variable, while the other party makes payments based on the return of an underlying asset, which includes both the income it generates and any capital gain.

In total return swaps, the underlying asset, referred to as the reference asset, is usually an equity index, a basket of loans, or bonds. The asset is owned by the party receiving the set rate payment.