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Hedge funds feast on credit arbitrage bonanza
June 28, 2013 / 3:52 PM / 4 years ago

Hedge funds feast on credit arbitrage bonanza

* Cash/CDS basis hits record wides

* Investors hunt for liquidity to cover long positions

By Christopher Whittall

LONDON, June 28 (IFR) - A choppy European credit market may have kept issuers on the sidelines of late, but it has gifted a raft of trading opportunities for credit hedge funds as a large basis has opened up between cash and synthetic markets.

One credit fund manager told IFR he would be postponing his summer holiday to take full advantage of the bonanza, with lucrative arbitrages also cropping up between index and single-name CDS contracts, as well as the various credit indices.

Buyside investors scrambling to cover long credit positions have been the main driver of the market shift, as they have hoovered up USD15bn of net protection on iTraxx Main - the benchmark for European investment-grade credit - over the past two weeks, according to data from the DTCC.

This has caused the index to shoot to its widest level since November, while cash markets have lagged behind.

“There are competing narratives for why the CDS market has been weak versus cash. Either fears over higher rates are leading to a sea change in the market and bond outflows, or it’s a more normal sell-off,” said Andrew Sheets, head of European credit strategy at Morgan Stanley.

“It seems likely that investors are trying to reduce exposure via CDS, which doesn’t have interest rate exposure, instead of selling their cash bonds, which do. That makes us think that fear of higher rates isn’t the main driver.”

The liquidity of CDS indices has made them the hedging weapon of choice for many real-money managers, who can rarely find the liquidity in cash markets needed to shift large chunks of credit risk during times of stress. As a result, the basis between cash and CDS has widened by about 25bp since iTraxx Main reached its recent wide of 132bp on June 24.

A handful of banks now offer iBoxx total return swap packages, giving investors a clean way to arbitrage the basis by selling the cash bonds while going long credit through the CDS index.

“It’s been very good lately. When Crossover hit 520bp, we sold the cash via TRS and went long via the index. As Crossover tightened 40bp, the bonds tightened 25bp, so we captured 15bp,” said one hedge fund manager.

The most dramatic move has been in the iTraxx sub financials index, where many investors had taken the view that proposed changes to the contracts to incorporate bail-in legislation would make sub CDS worthless. Dealers say sub financial CDS has snapped back in line with where it had been trading before these concerns took hold, burning some participants in the process.

THE MAIN SHOW

Despite credit volatility picking up, dealers say liquidity has held up, allowing investors to take views. “The big difference between now and five years ago is dealers’ balance sheets are much smaller, so most of the pain has been on the buyside, not the sellside, during those moves wider,” said the European head of credit trading at a major house.

Traders say the Main index had become a proxy to hedge everything from emerging market risk to credit options positions that some had previously sold in order to boost returns. The bellwether index was consequently 21 times over-bought compared with iTraxx Crossover, and had outperformed most other indices as it tightened back to 115bp on Friday (June 28).

Arbitrage opportunities remain, including the index skew between the Main index and its underlying single-name constituents, but many of these will probably be ironed out before too long.

“I don’t think this is a new normal - the basis should narrow. If things get materially worse, people will need to de-risk their bond exposure and cash spreads will catch up; if it improves, indices will look like an attractive and liquid way to put risk back on as they are trading wide to intrinsic value,” said Sheets. (Reporting by Christopher Whittall; editing by Helen Bartholomew, Matthew Davies)

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