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I made a Google web search on "pyramid CDO", and I found confirming opinions:
CDOs, which are debt instruments, are built as a pyramid. The bonds are packaged into different tranches of securities. At the bottom is the equity tranche backed by the riskier debt or loan collateral. On the top of the pyramid are the "super senior tranche" first, followed by the triple-A rated tranches. Those senior tranches are backed by investment-grade debt or high-quality loans. In between are the mezzanine tranches, which offer a bit of a mix of the pros and cons of both extremes. Naturally, the equity tranche at the bottom of the pyramid is the one with the potential highest risk and reward, which is why it offers the highest yield. The senior tranches on top of the pyramid pay the lowest yield because they are safer, being backed by higher credit-quality assets and benefiting from the "cushion" offered by the equity tranche that gets hit by losses first in the event of credit downgrades affecting the collateral.

Typically hedge funds get involved in the CDO market for two main reasons. The first is to obtain returns. In such cases they act as CDO investors, buying almost always the rewarding equity tranche. The second reason will lead them to issue CDOs in order to obtain a new source of funding. In these cases they are the collateral managers, those who gather and buy the assets for the collateral pool. They obtain funds by issuing the notes sliced into the various tranches that are offered to the market. Hedge funds in such cases are no different from the corporations that issue bonds on the capital markets for their funding needs.

This is from Bloomberg.com, no less:

Bundling mortgages into asset-backed bonds and then agglutinating those bonds into collateralized debt obligations sliced into different flavors of risk always smacked of a sophisticated pyramid scheme. As the foundations crumble, even the apex of the CDO market is looking shaky.

This book has a big chapter on CDOs (No 20), and this chapter:

4. Liquidity, the Credit Pyramid and Market Data
4.1 Bond liquidity
4.2 The Credit Pyramid
4.3 Survey and engineered spread data
4.3.1 Survey data
4.3.2 Engineered data
4.4 Spread and rating

And here you can find some technical info about "Fortis Bank Pyramid CDO, a Euro 268mm ABS CDO". Is this an apt name for some financial product?

The following reference is more rhetorical, but still informative:

[All buyers] liked the extra yield this stuff provided and chose to ignore the dubious basis on which A credit ratings were obtained or the fact that these instruments were not traded and so could not be marked to market. They were worth what the issuers said they were worth - until they tried to sell them.

The sheer scale of these ponzi activities is indicated by the fact that in the first quarter of this year alone US$251 billion worth of CDOs were issued and including US$121 billion of credit default swaps - instruments by which banks sell risk to each other.

by das monde on Mon Aug 20th, 2007 at 05:17:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There was a pyramid scheme not because of the pyramid structuring of CDOs, which has nothing to do with Ponzi scheme, but because there may have been a bubble in CDO valuation ; Financial bubbles are when something is bought because of an expected increase in value may allow reselling at profit, and those may be described as Ponzi schemes.

The first link is wrong in its description of CDOs, BTW : the seniority of the upper tranches comes not because they are backed by safer securities, but because it is supposed they'll have to pay premiums only if all the backing debtors default, which is supposed to be very unlikely (and which may prove to be false in the case of subprime CDOs)

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Aug 20th, 2007 at 05:39:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I do see a pyramid structuring of CDOs. I would not call it bubble - the CDOs were rarely traded. They were perhaps hardly tradable by design or expectation. As the last citation says,

"They were worth what the issuers said they were worth - until they tried to sell them."

by das monde on Mon Aug 20th, 2007 at 05:48:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The CDOs were traded ; that's how they were more effectively priced. Now that's there is not trust in CDOs, they can't be traded, and thus are losing their value.

A Ponzi scheme means essentially that you give the first entrants high returns with the money invested by later entrants ; this is not the scheme of CDOs at all : CDOs are insurance contracts.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Aug 20th, 2007 at 06:05:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I clarified my use of Ponzi/pyramid terminology in a parallel sub-thread. I do not refer to CDOs as Ponzi.

The lack of  CDO trading was especially emphasised at the moment of BNP Paribas crisis. CDO valuation was anything but effective. Banks and hedge funds would have normally sold junk CDOs away, but they were scared reveal the real value of CDOs; and the real value of CDOs was opaque because they were rarely traded. That was the reasoning so shortly ago.

by das monde on Mon Aug 20th, 2007 at 06:34:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
CDOs weren't a full-Ponzi, but there was more than a hint of Ponzi about them.

I'm guessing the first few iterations of the high-risk tranches would have posted impressive returns, and this would have been enough to persuade hedge funds to funnel money at them, starting a mini-Ponzi stampede, which would in turn have made CDOs as a whole look more attractive - especially with unrealistic risk ratings.

All it's going to take is proof that someone somewhere moved money from Tranche A to pay off a high return on Tranche B in the hope that money would come in to cover Tranche A at some point, sooner or later, and you have a classic Ponzi.

I'll be surprised if no one tried this.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Mon Aug 20th, 2007 at 07:49:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Trading dried up because of the crisis a few weeks ago ; before that, although the market wasn't extremely liquid, trading happened regularly.

And the 'real value' of anything is given by the market, anyway, in our utilitarist world.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Mon Aug 20th, 2007 at 08:09:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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