A credit derivative is an OTC derivative designed to transfer credit risk from one party to another. By synthetically creating or eliminating credit exposures, they allow institutions to more effectively manage credit risks. Credit derivatives take many forms. Three basic structures include:
credit default swap: Two parties enter into an agreement whereby one party pays the other a fixed periodic coupon for the specified life of the agreement. The other party makes no payments unless a specified credit event occurs. Credit events are typically defined to include a material default, bankruptcy or debt restructuring for a specified reference asset. If such a credit event occurs, the party makes a payment to the first party, and the swap then terminates. The size of the payment is usually linked to the decline in the reference asset's market value following the credit event.
total return swap: Two parties enter an agreement whereby they swap periodic payment over the specified life of the agreement. One party makes payments based upon the total return—coupons plus capital gains or losses—of a specified reference asset. The other makes fixed or floating payments as with a vanilla interest rate swap. Both parties' payments are based upon the same notional amount. The reference asset can be almost any asset, index or basket of assets.
credit linked note: A debt instrument is bundled with an embedded credit derivative. In exchange for a higher yield on the note, investors accept exposure to a specified credit event. For example, a note might provide for principal repayment to be reduced below par in the event that a reference asset defaults prior to the maturity of the note.
The fundamental difference between a credit default swap and a total return swap is the fact that the credit default swap provides protection against specific credit events. The total return swap provides protection against loss of value irrespective of cause—a default, market sentiment causing credit spreads to widen, etc.
Most credit derivatives entail two sources of credit exposure: one from the reference asset and the other from possible default by the counterparty to the transaction.